Why Learning a Second (Third, Fourth…) Language Matters

Every teacher knows the pain of trying to convince a student that “yes, you will use this after you graduate” and “yes, it does matter that you learn the material”. Yet, with stacks of papers to mark, assemblies to attend, meetings to lead, and club sports to oversee, we sometimes lose sight of why we teach what we teach. Psh. English. Who cares, right?

With all the bureaucracy I’ve been drowning in lately, I definitely started losing touch with why studying English matters. A common complaint I hear from fellow coworkers is that students don’t use English outside of class and won’t use English after they graduate. They complain that students only go through the motions of learning English because it’s a graduation requirement to have taken and passed English in high school (and, for the record, a passing mark is anything above 30%).

So why teach English to a largely homogenous island nation… particularly out in the rice fields and up in the mountain side, where it takes enough effort to travel to talk to your nearest neighbor, let alone go anywhere to speak a foreign language?

Why should anyone have to learn a foreign language if they don’t plan on ever using the language?

Here’s why: because learning a foreign language helps foster compassion.

It seems that the latest “nontroversy” in the media is the multilingual Coke commercial that aired on Superbowl Sunday. Some of the visceral backlash sparked by this innocent (albeit, multi-million dollar) commercial has been circulating on the interwebz. I read some of ‘em, was disgusted, then laughed, and then stopped caring because people are ignorant and misinformed in the world and oh well, whatdyagunnado.

But then I started thinking about how these people who complain about hearing languages other than English actually probably have never learned a language other than English themself. If you’ve ever experienced the vulnerability of being lost in translation, or the struggle of negotiating language and meaning with a stranger, friend, or--most heartbreakingly--family member, or the empowerment that you get when you finally are able to successfully express an original thought in a language you’ve been studying… you’d react differently to hearing foreign languages.

If you had ever experienced the distress, hard work, or pay off that comes with the territory of learning another language, you would appreciate the unique beauty that every different language has to offer. At the same time, you might become less mystified of the stereotypically “beautiful” and “sexy” languages--and thus less close-minded about which country or culture is more “civil” or “romantic” or which country is “loud”, “annoying”, or “dirty”.

You would be more patient with people who wandered out of or were forced out of their comfort zone of their own country and mother tongue. You would understand how long it takes to actually become fluent in a host country’s language. You would understand how one’s own culture bleeds into one’s own language. You would understand that even if you are fluent in two languages, you sometimes can only adequately express something in one language due to the limitations of the other language. You might start to believe people are more similar to one another than they are different, even if they speak different languages. You’ll learn that a person who speaks a different language is not inherently a threat to you. You’ll learn that sharing a home country with a person who speaks a different language can add to the quality of what that country has to offer in a classic, sum-greater-than-its-parts kind of way.

America the beautiful, yo. Not every country in the world has the great opportunity of housing such a diverse landscape of people. Our country has a lot of potential as a mixed, immigrant nation. I miss that, and am looking forward to going back one day.

Learning a second language is crucial in becoming a compassionate global citizen wherever you live. If you haven’t learned your second language yet, it’s not too late.

Here are some of my favorite language study tools:

Learn Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Portuguese with fun, interactive, intuitive language basics lessons. (duolingo.com)

Anki Flashcards
These smart, digital flashcards help you memorize new vocabulary and grammar points by cycling through stacks of cards to best help you review older vocabulary and grammar while gradually working in new study points. The cards are totally customizable according to your learning style. (ankisrs.net/)

Online Picture Books
Olly Bolly is a fun site where you can find picture books from many different countries, read to you in English or in the country’s native language. Learn about other cultures through their children’s literature and folklore and brush up on your Tagalog, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Camobdian, Thai… the list goes on an on. (ollybolly.org)

Learning a new language is one of the best, free, investments that you can make for yourself. It’ll open doors of opportunities, help you think in new ways, and gets exponentially easier the more you learn.

がんばりましょうね!Dali, magaral tayo! ¡Si se puede!

Have fun!

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