Why we should learn other languages, and resources for studying foreign languages for all ages
“Language reflects who we are,” says Matt Krebs. “To learn the language of another society is to see the world as they do. For that reason, even a cursory study of a language improves a person’s ability to see the world in a new and better way.”
Krebs not only believes in learning more than one language, he has experienced the benefits firsthand.
In the middle of his college studies, Krebs decided to become a missionary and was assigned to Japan for two years. After an intensive missionary language program that entailed six to seven hours of language instruction each day, the novice missionary left for Japan. It took three or four more months of living in Japan—hearing and speaking the language daily—to be able to converse with the Japanese people, he says. But once he could, Krebs discovered a powerful benefit of learning a new language.
“Studying a language does a number of important things for you,” Krebs says, “but I think one of the most important is that it allows you to understand not just what people say but how they think. When you learn to speak the way they speak, you understand their culture and the concepts common to their language.”
A good example: politeness in the Japanese culture. Krebs says, “I tend to think that the language accommodates such politeness because it has been used by an intrinsically contrite people for hundreds of years.”
Krebs is now executive director of the Japan/America Society of Kentucky located in Lexington (www.jask.org), a statewide organization that promotes cultural exchange, serves as a bridge between the Japanese and American communities, and builds friendships between people from both countries.
Experiencing new cultures and developing intercultural relationships are two benefits of learning a new language. There are many more. Learning a new language increases flexibility in your thinking, improves understanding of your native language, gives you a better ear for listening, boosts problem-solving skills, and increases job opportunities.
For children, learning a new language has a well-documented positive effect on intellectual growth. In addition, young learners still have the capacity to develop near native-like pronunciation and intonation in a new language. Children also get a head start on college entrance requirements.
Communities benefit as well when citizens are bilingual. For example, Korea’s INFAC Corporation decided to locate in Campbellsville recently, and Ron McMahan, director of Team Taylor County, credits help from Campbellsville University, specifically student Yoo Jin (Eugene) Lee and the university’s Center for International Education for helping to make that happen.
For young and old alike, learning more than one language is rapidly becoming more than intellectual development, adventure, or cultural awareness. It is now an essential 21st-century skill.
So why aren’t we all bilingual or multilingual?
Fred de Rosset, director of professional programs for the Kentucky Institute for International Studies (KIIS), has a straightforward answer.
“If you try to learn a new language alone, it is likely you will become discouraged quickly,” he says. “To learn a new language there has to be constant reinforcement, preferably in conjunction with instruction from someone who is a professional teacher or understands the challenges of language acquisition. Just because someone can speak the language doesn’t mean he can teach it. That would be like saying everyone who speaks English can teach it.”
KIIS—a consortium consisting of 17 Kentucky colleges and universities and four out-of-state universities—provides just that combo for adults. De Rosset created a model that works across different languages and professions. The model includes an intensive domestic program with a minimum of 12 hours of instruction coupled with a five-week immersion program in a country where the language is spoken. De Rosset groups people in the same profession and teaches them conversational language, culture, and terminology specific to their profession.
Participants are also introduced to people in their profession. Police officers, for example, meet with their counterparts in Mexico and go to the police academy there. Medical students shadow physicians. Everyone stays in the home of a native family. They also may earn college credit from Murray State University, the credit-granting institution for the consortium.
Like most language programs, however, funding can be diverted to other needs when budgets are tight.
Such is the way with language instruction in public schools as well, according to Dr. Jacque Bott Van Houten, world language and international education consultant with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE). She says in elementary and middle school, language instruction needs to be done on a daily basis or at least three or four times a week. Schools are reluctant to do this, she says, because they feel tied to curriculum that will be covered on statewide testing, and language is not part of that test.
Languages in Kentucky schools
A handful of schools have nonetheless taken bold steps. Maxwell Spanish Immersion Elementary School, or Escuela de Inmersión en Español, in Lexington is the example most point to. At Maxwell, one-half of the school day is spent in Spanish and one-half in English. The Geography and Culture strand of the social studies curriculum is integrated into the Spanish block as well.
The program continues for some students at Bryan Station Traditional Magnet School, also in Lexington, in grades six through eight and high school at Bryan Station High in ninth grade. Students who graduate from the high school Spanish Academy program receive a Kentucky diploma and a diploma from Spain. Language arts, science, and math are offered in Spanish. All other courses are offered in English, including a language arts/English class.
Other public schools have also found creative ways to address language instruction.
Public schools in Somerset, Hazard, and Harlan began teaching Chinese to their students this year, thanks to an agreement between KDE and China, according to Van Houten. China is one of several countries that have a formal agreement with the KDE.
China sends teachers to the United States and pays their salaries. The hosting school district agrees to provide free housing and transportation for the teachers, pay a processing fee ($2,000 the first year and $1,500 for subsequent years) for visas, health insurance, a weeklong university orientation, a $5,000 stipend for living expenses, and support the teacher’s attendance at the annual fall conference of the Kentucky World Languages Association.
“For around $7,000 a year, the school district gets a certified, native-speaking language teacher,” says Van Houten. “Last school year, 33 teachers came from Spain, France, and China to provide native language instruction in Kentucky public elementary and secondary schools. This year 41 will come.”
Cloyd J. Bumgardner, director of public relations for the Somerset School System, says the district has three Chinese teachers this year who work with some 1,400 students throughout the district. The agreement is for three years but renewable each year, he says.
Roger L. Marcum, superintendent of Marion County Public Schools, says they are in their third year of Chinese instruction for students at the elementary level and in the second year of instruction at middle school and high school levels.
“We are educating kids, not adults,” says Marcum as he explains why the district chose Chinese. “We are trying to think about the world they will live in as adults. For this generation, China is extremely important in the world economy. When I was in school, the primary languages taught were French and German, perhaps some Spanish. Even then, Japan was becoming a growing force. The two languages we have needed most as adults are Spanish and Japanese, yet they weren’t taught or were taught little when we were growing up.”
Marcum is also trying to change the age when children begin learning a language in school.
“We are offering language instruction in elementary school,” he says, citing the voluminous research that language instruction grows the capacity of the brain to learn other subjects, especially if the instruction is provided while children are developing their first language.
“This is the reverse of what we did in the past,” Marcum says. “During my generation, language wasn’t offered until high school. In other countries, language is taught to young children. They are able to think and communicate in two languages.”
A second language is also critical to living in a global economy, Marcum says.
“Our culture is becoming more diverse,” he notes. “We are now truly in a global economy and interdependent on other countries. Just look at oil prices. It’s important for children to understand that and have an appreciation of other cultures and differences.”
Susann Davis, president-elect of the 500-member Kentucky World Language Association (KWLA) and a Spanish instructor at Western Kentucky University, says that the American mentality has often been the assumption that we didn’t need to learn another language because people in other countries would learn English. Today Davis has yet another concern about language instruction. She is concerned that we teach one language at the expense of another.
“In Kentucky, the Spanish language is predominantly taught because of the influx of Hispanics,” she says. “Often this is at the expense of French and German programs. It is a big mistake to discontinue French and German and to give up the progress we have made in those languages. We need to be teaching multiple languages.”
Numerous languages are represented at the Kentucky World Language Festival, sponsored by KWLA. Dating back to the late ’60s, the festival showcases student achievement in language and cultural understanding with events such as native dance competitions, readings, literature recitation, conversations with judges, art, and even construction model building.
For schools that do not have enough students to offer German or Latin, Kentucky Educational Television offers a distance learning program in which students can earn credit in Latin and German, says Ann Denny, KET’s Latin distance learning teacher. The arrangement is a partnership between the school, which grants the credit, and KET, which provides the instruction via video. The program is free to all Kentucky students. They only need to purchase a manual. Go to www.dl.ket.org or call (800) 333-9764 to find out more.
The immersion experience
The one thing essentially everyone involved with learning languages agrees on is that the ideal way to learn is through an immersion program.
Lori Kagan-Moore knew this from a childhood experience, and now lives in Danville and is the director and curator of The Great American Dollhouse Museum.
“When I was 13, my family spent a year in Turkey, and I learned French in an immersion program at Ankara French Embassy School. I grew up with a respect for having a second language and having learned it through an immersion method.”
Therefore, when Kagan-Moore wanted to learn Spanish along with her daughter, she chose an immersion method. Before leaving the country, she used videotapes and books to get started and took a class at Centre College, where her husband teaches. Kagan-Moore says she spent weeks researching immersion programs, finding it difficult to sort through the claims of hundreds of schools she found online. Ultimately, she started corresponding with teachers and administrators at the schools, asking detailed questions to try to make an informed choice for herself and daughter Emma.
“We have so many terrific memories of our time in San José (Costa Rica),” she says.
“We liked to ride the bus from our host family’s home to school every morning. The people were so friendly and so outgoing. Our school gave us stickers that said, in Spanish: ‘I’m learning Spanish. Please speak to me in Spanish.’ We wore them everywhere and that caused people to speak to us all the time. We had conversations on the bus with people who sat around us. They knew to speak a little slowly and give us a little slack.” (See sidebars below for more on Kagan-Moore’s immersion trip and suggestions for finding an immersion school.)
Back in Somerset, Cloyd Bumgardner summarizes the importance of learning languages succinctly. “The world is a smaller place all the time,” he says, “and language is a window to that world.”
WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT IMMERSION PROGRAMS?
Lori Kagan-Moore documented her three-week experience at the Forester Instituto Internacional in a detailed letter for those interested in an immersion program. She explains the details of her research to find the school, how she and her daughter spent their days, and what she liked best about the experience. Go to www.fores.com/english/lori-letter.html.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: WEB RESOURCES FOR LEARNING LANGUAGES
For a list of Web sites that provide tips and useful info on learning languages and useful suggestions from Lori Kagan-Moore for researching and choosing the right immersion school for you, go to immersion.