Confession: I was that weird kid in high school that actually liked Spanish class. Prior to my sophomore year in high school, I'd never had any experience with a foreign language. I was quickly enthralled. The verb conjugation charts, the strange new phonetics of familiar letters, the shared vocabulary spoken in different ways, the completely novel vocabulary that just had to be memorized--it all made my brain so happy in a way I'd never experienced before. And I began to realize that there was so much about my first language I didn't know, like what in the world an adverb is and how English pronunciation rules make no sense.
Not too long after I completed my first Spanish course, I had the opportunity to visit a Spanish-speaking country for a youth missions trip. I was wrecked (in the best way possible) by this experience. What the learning of foreign language had done for my brain, the using of the foreign language skills in the real world, with real people, did for my heart.
Fast forward to college, and I couldn't seem to shake my love for foreign language learning or a deepening connection with Spanish-speaking cultures and peoples. So, I chose (what to most was likely) a rather un-cool career path: Spanish Education. I wanted to be able to pass along to others this thing, this experience, this ability, that brings joy and purpose to my brain and heart.
Then, I got my first teaching gig at a small, private school. I so enjoyed interacting with the students. They were great. But it quickly became apparent that they did not share my affinity for foreign language learning. I heard objections similar to those I heard from peers when I was in high school:
"I don't plan to travel or work in a Spanish-speaking context. When am I ever going to use this?"
"I don't want to learn Spanish; other people need to just learn English. The rest of the world speaks English anyway."
It was then and there that I realized that the challenge of foreign language isn't just verb charts and strange pronunciations, it's the "why" behind it and preconceived sentiments toward it.
Some of those sentiments are, perhaps, perpetuated by American culture. Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), asserts that there is a language learning gap in the U.S. For example, the European Commission reports that 92% of European students are learning a second language in school. In the U.S., only 20% of K-12 students are learning a foreign language. This number drops to single digits at the postsecondary education level, and is on the decline.
Technology advancements in the last several years further complicate the matter of foreign language learning. You know..."There's an app for that." Need to exchange words with someone who doesn't speak English? Apps like Google Translate and SayHi offer instantaneous voice-to-voice translation. Looking at a sign in a foreign language that you don't understand? TextGrabber utilizes a phone's camera to capture words and translate them for you. TripLingo goes above and beyond basic translation services and offers tips on navigating cultural nuances, etiquette, and slang.
National statistics, American cultural sentiments, and impressive advancements in technology leave me asking, just 15 years after I started my journey as a foreign language educator, is it relevant anymore?
I reached out to a former professor of mine with this very question. Dr. James Wilkins has been a Professor of French at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, since 1997. The following is an excerpt from an interview with him:
What should parents consider about learning a foreign language as they navigate their child's education?
"When we consider a parent’s role or responsibility in encouraging the study of additional languages, we mustn’t forget that the majority of parents have not studied an additional language, or at least not to the point of gaining real-world proficiency in another language. This may make it more difficult for parents to know how to support their students as they learn a new language.
Parents should realize the significant skill that comes with language learning, a skill that is increasingly appreciated by employers and institutions of higher learning. When equipped with additional language, a child has large parts of the world opened to them for interaction. It’s quite sad to think about what we miss of God’s created world when we forgo the opportunity to learn other languages, cultures, peoples."
Is learning another language even relevant in our world today?
"YES! The relevance of language learning cannot be over-stressed. Facilitated travel, tech-enhanced communications, the incentive to be inclusive of others, have all mandated the learning of other ways of speaking and thinking upon all of us. People around the world seek to learn English, but it seems that a disproportionate number of Americans feel compelled to join in this life-changing learning experience. This is to our detriment, denying ourselves the opportunities that come with cross-cultural commerce, cultural exchanges, travel, political understanding, to name a few."
What (if any) non-language based skills do students use in foreign-language learning?
"In learning additional language, a learner exercises her mind to an extent not known by monolingual individuals. There are TV shows teaching us how to better organize our homes, and thus our lives. No difference when organizing your mind around an additional language. Such skill influences all of our lives: the way we think, the way we understand others, the way we interact with others."
What benefits are there--in the 21st century--to learning a foreign language? Is it really worth a student's time to take beyond the requirements in that field?
"Benefits? Many and varied. The most precious to me have been moments of real communication between others and myself that would be otherwise impossible had I not learned their language. Learning to think differently when appropriate, allowing myself to befriend and to be befriended by people otherwise inaccessible to me. The onus for these multiple benefits should not always fall on the 'other,' but on each of us."
Dr. Wilkins and I share a bias toward foreign language learning. Both of our lives have been significantly richer and fuller because of our experience with foreign language. Of course we will always and forever land on saying, "YES, foreign language learning is relevant." I get that not everyone's brain is so happy in the learning of foreign language, but I do suspect that everyone's heart could be happy in this process...because of Who made us.
Language matters to our Creator. How did God choose to bring all of creation into existence? He spoke it (Genesis 1:3). How did God choose to express and reveal himself to humans? As the Word (John 1:1). God took on flesh to dwell among us, and in so doing He chose to step into a specific people group, language(s), and culture. He learned "our" language as an expression of His love for us and as a profound invitation into relationship with Him. When we pursue learning a foreign language, we are following His example--an eternal relevance