Hello, blog readers! I am an international graduate student at the School of Communication. Through writing for the MMLC, I get to explore the different shades of digital humanities and language learning. Learning something new is always at the top of my list—and if you know me, you know my love for checklists, bucket lists, and resolutions. Learning a language, however, is the one that keeps getting away. So, with a renewed energy for 2017 comes a revamped resolution to get back on the horse.
We are moving swiftly into the New Year and if you continue to cling onto those resolutions, then kudos to you! If you are looking for a change in track, here is one you may have heard before: Learn a new language!
Cultural awareness is just one among the benefits of learning a new language that has been reiterated endlessly. It is also said to have immense cognitive benefits. According to curated research by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, bilingualism is correlated with increased cognitive development and abilities, attention control on cognitive tasks, intelligence, memory, problem solving abilities and verbal and spatial abilities among others. A few new languages on your resume also up your employability, showcasing that you are a professional global citizen. In a corporate environment that transcends borders, it is important to grasp cultural nuances and the immersive experience that is language learning helps facilitate that. Ultimately, it also makes you a better traveler—if you are vulnerable to wanderlust—and allows you to embed yourself in a culture rather than be a mere tourist. More bang for the buck!
Understandably, the older we grow, the less confident we are about our skill development—but the remedies to this are nestled cozily in those 2×5 inch boxes we spend most of our days on. Language learning apps have been on the market for years now. Duolingo is perhaps the most popular platform by far. The app currently offers free gamified lessons for approximately 23 languages. Babbel, which claims to be the world’s first language learning app, is not free but focuses on conversational elements more than Duolingo. The learning frameworks also continue to evolve; for example, Rosetta Stone and Busuu allow beginners to interact with native speakers to complement the exercises. If you are still a bit technologically averse and apps don’t work for you, there are some old school ways of picking up a new language. TED, of TED talks, offers a piece of advice: Make friends with heritage or native speakers or find a foreign pen pal. While you are still in school and college, however, there is no better resource than a foreign language class with a proficient teacher to help you.
A report titled The State of Languages in the US, shows that only 9 states had between 30 and 51.2% of K-12 students enrolled in language courses other than English. Meanwhile, their European counterpart—in the same demographic and time range—have 9 countries with up to 50% in secondary enrollment in language classes, perhaps owing to its mobile citizenry. While these figures aren’t uplifting, three American states are consciously propagating multilingualism, at an elementary level: Utah, Delaware and Wisconsin. The latter, in fact, has also established a Seal of Biliteracy program that incentivizes students to take up another language before they complete their high school education.
There are similar initiatives taking hold in higher education institutions. While some have softened their language requirements, others are bringing the discussion about the benefits of foreign languages to the fore. Princeton University, resident of the Ivy League, recently published a proposal to ensure that all undergraduate students working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree fulfill a language requirement, regardless of previous proficiency. Additionally, they are also looking to expand their students’ cultural competency. As the report states:
“We believe requiring all students to take at least one course with international content, broadly defined, would further enhance Princeton’s commitment. Likewise, the task force recommends that all students be required to take one course that addresses the intersections of culture, identity, and power, either in a local or international context.”
Somewhat similarly, the arts and sciences faculty at the University of Pittsburgh are in the midst of debating whether standardized high school testing can exempt a student from their undergraduate language requirement. As it stands, the argument is that good results on the Advanced Placement test or regular high school testing doesn’t effectively determine a student’s proficiency in a language. If the proposal goes through, students must take a proficiency test and should they not meet the standard, will be required to take two terms of language study. The proposal aligns with the university’s commitment to produce global citizens by 2020.
Regardless of the future of such initiatives, take it upon yourself to make use of your undergraduate or graduate institution’s language courses while you can. If you are not already a foreign language major, it can be a refreshing change to your curriculum. Right here, at Northwestern University, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences offers around 19 languages, ranging from Hindi and Russian to Korean. Make it your next elective!