15 June 2011

On the Benefits of Being Multi-Lingual

Most high schools and many colleges require their students to take a certain number of semesters of foreign language classes. Personally, I think this is an admirable requirement, and that students do not appreciate enough the opportunity they have to learn the language of another culture. Like many Americans, I grew up speaking only one language fluently, and it was only in college that I discovered the wondrous world of studying foreign languages. I started out in college taking Chinese to fulfill my foreign language requirement, and after one semester, changed my major from Business to Mandarin Chinese. My sophomore year I studied Japanese, and a year ago, as soon as I was pretty certain that I would be marrying into a Hispanic family, I registered for Spanish 101. I have enjoyed studying each one of these languages under excellent professors, and I must admit I have been rather mystified at my fellow classmates, most of whom had taken between 2 and 4 years of Spanish in high school, and yet were placed in Spanish 101 when they took our college’s placement tests.
One of my classmates said, during our first week of classes, “I already speak American, I don’t know why they make us learn Spanish, it’s not like we’ll ever use it!” Ahhh, poor freshman, she has yet to realize that foreign languages are one of the most practical skills that can be gained at college! Several of my classmates happily announced, as the school year came to an end, that they were transferring to a different college where taking foreign language classes was not required.
In high school, I heard a joke, in which a person who spoke three languages was defined as trilingual, a person who spoke two languages was defined as bilingual, and a person who spoke one language was defined as American. When I heard this joke, I laughed, because it struck me as very true. Now, this joke is most definitely an over-generalization—I know quite a few Americans who are fluent in several languages. Still, in my experience, people from other countries around the world have a much stronger tendency to speak languages outside of their own language well, as compared to us Americans who seem to have a tendency to forget our high school and college Spanish even faster than we forget the equations from our high school Physics class. I don’t think that we have a valid excuse if we say that we have no chance to use the languages we study in high school. Through the few years that I have studied Chinese, I have met many students at my college who came from China to study, and plan to stay in America and work after they graduate. When I spend time with these friends of mine, my knowledge of Chinese definitely gets a workout as I try to follow their conversations, which always seem to take place at lightning speed! I have never had any intention of learning to speak Spanish and yet I just happened to marry a man whose first language is Spanish! These days, as I struggle to understand the gist of my husband’s conversations with his parents, I wish I had found my interest in foreign languages as a younger age. It isn’t as easy to start learning a new language in your late teens as it is to start learning as a child. But it’s possible, at any age! Both of my parents recently started studying a foreign language, and I won’t tell you how old they are, in the interests of preserving my reputation as the good child.
If you have an opportunity to learn a foreign language, don’t let it go! If you are forced to take a foreign language class because of school requirements, try to actually learn something, rather than simply pass the class. Admittedly, I am a bit of a fanatic about languages. One of my heroes is a little elderly lady I know who is illiterate and never finished elementary school, but can speak four languages fluently. Another hero is a former professor of mine, who can speak eight languages, with varying degrees of fluency. Foreign language skills are useful for any interactions with a culture outside our own, be it ministry, business, or simply trying to make friendships. People who can speak multiple languages fluently are sought after for jobs—I’ve had several classmates with double majors in business and Mandarin Chinese, intending to work in international corporations that seek to do business in China.
As for me, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my Chinese. Currently, I converse with friends at my college in Chinese, and read Chinese characters whenever I see them. My relatives ask me for the meanings of Chinese characters on rugs and articles of clothing they possess. I surreptitiously read and translate to myself Chinese tattoos—and then laugh and wonder if the stranger who walked by me really wanted such a strange phrase permanently written across their arm. It is always possible, I’m sure. For me, being able to understand and use a language besides English is simply fun! I remember a time when I was with my family, in an elevator at the mall. A couple who was also in the elevator were openly discussing our family in Mandarin Chinese, talking to each other about how many children were in my family, how cute my baby sister was and trying to decide if she was a boy or a girl. They had no idea that I could understand everything they were saying, and I didn’t let on, but I did get some pleasure out of understanding what people say when they are “secretly” talking about my family. I know my Spanish will come in useful as my vocabulary and grammar skills increase. I recently learned how to give commands in Spanish, and had a fun several weeks “commanding” my husband to do things around the house. He still finds it cute, so I’m not in trouble yet!
Anonymous said...

My parents are very appreciative.

Anna said...

I wish schools in the US would start teaching foreign languages early on! I know that some do, but mine didn't. We may have had a tiny bit of Spanish in elementary school (or maybe I learned to count in Spanish from Sesame Street?), but actual foreign language classes weren't offered until high school.

Mrs. Bennett Has Class said...

Good for you, learning multiple languages! It's so useful and opens up so many opportunities for work and travel and communication. I really wish foreign languages were offered starting as early as Kindergarten, like they are for learning English in other countries. The prime ages for learning another language are really from birth to 7. From there it gets more difficult. But obviously you have a beautiful gift for writing and learning languages! Fantastic! It's never too late, even if it is a little harder.