Study a Foreign Language!

Americans Need to Speak Foreign Languages

Most American students approach language study as a necessary evil.  Studying Spanish for two years in high school, where one hardly learns to say more than a few simple phrases, is for most an unnecessary, burdensome, and forced exercise in diversification.  Many who recognize some benefit in learning foreign languages point to the new cultural experiences they have enjoyed, but they often assume that one can achieve nothing more with language study than becoming an interpreter or translator.  Americans realize that Spanish and French are important because of our neighbors, but they view those needs as limited.  French remains largely confined to Quebec, and while Spanish may be useful in the South and Southwest, the dominance of English, guaranteed through language laws and assimilation, means that only managers in business that hire Spanish speakers need to learn the language.  Most Americans admit that Chinese is a necessity for business, but they realize that only a small percentage of individuals deal with China.  Arabic and Farsi are important, but only for the intelligence community.

The situation in Europe is quite the opposite.  According to a 2012 Eurobarometer study (see the posting about it on this web site here), approximately 98 percent of all Europeans living in the European Union believe that foreign languages are important for the future of their children, and 88 percent recognize that they themselves benefit from a foreign language.  Europeans accept that not only are languages essential to success in the multilingual European Union but also that they are essential to success in today's globalized economy.

The reality is that, as more school districts in America reduce language study, often citing budgetary reasons, the usefulness of foreign languages for Americans is increasing.  As a result, those with language training have an edge in the job market.  Cultural diversity, communication with immigrants, corporate dealings abroad, and national security are good reasons to study languages, but there are more.  American foreign trade constantly increases, and foreign trade zones in the US are multiplying, meaning that business managers, sales professionals, lawyers, and accountants can benefit from speaking a foreign language.  The need for intercultural competency is why several major universities offer joint MBA-MA degrees.  Even small firms deal abroad, and while foreign business professionals may speak English, those Americans who can communicate with them in their native languages or through mutual foreign languages will gain the respect of their foreign counterparts, thus giving them an advantage over their competitors who only speak English.  A foreign language gives an individual an edge during negotiations, and understanding a foreign culture can prevent social mishaps and can help an individual gain the trust of foreign colleagues.  Federal law enforcement agencies require a foreign language for many positions.  The Department of State expects applicants to have language training, even though it will provide additional training in languages needed for specific posts.  In such instances, the evidence that one can learn a language is more important than what language one speaks.  Throughout the military, a candidate for promotion receives additional points for language ability.  Nongovernmental organizations also look for those with foreign language skills.

Students in many fields in the social sciences and humanities who wish to complete a master’s degree or a doctorate have a particular need to study foreign languages.  Most respected graduate programs require one language for the MA and a second for the PhD.  Admission committees expect that this language work is complete when one receives a bachelor’s degree.  At a minimum, they may accept students into a graduate program who have demonstrated a very good reading knowledge in one language, generally requiring language training beyond four semesters in college, and a good basis in a second, usually the completion of the typical four-semester block of elementary and intermediate language courses.  They require either standardized examinations or exams that the admitting department devises to determine language ability.  These languages must be pertinent to the student’s intended field of research, so someone wishing to study Turkey’s relations with the European Union will need to know Turkish and at least one of the other five official languages of the EU.  Americanists might think that they are exempt from these requirements, but they are not, even if they will not use foreign languages in their research.  The only (dis)advantage that they have is that they will not have to improve their language beyond the basic reading level.  Since graduate programs consider languages a research skill, a few programs give the students the option to replace one of the languages with quantitative methods.

How much language is enough?  That depends on what one expects to do with the language.  Obviously, comprehending a text, from time to time, with the aid of a dictionary, is different from being able to function effectively abroad, where one will need to manage day-to-day life and research in an archive.  The United States Federal Government has established the Interagency Language Roundtable to evaluate language proficiency using a standard scale, and academia as well as other fields often refer to the ILR categories.  The ILR scale involves six levels, with pluses indicating the gradients between the levels: no proficiency, elementary proficiency, limited working proficiency, general professional proficiency, advanced professional proficiency, functional native proficiency.  For the most part, graduate students need to demonstrate limited working proficiency in a language, although extensive research using a language will require that an individual approach advanced proficiency.  Nonnative speakers rarely achieve functional native proficiency, which assumes a working knowledge of the language in all fields, from the sciences to the humanities.

Studying a Language

Because graduate programs want to see that an individual can read languages for the purpose of research and that he or she can pass tests to determine that ability, they are not particularly interested in how many credits of language one took in college or whether one learned to speak a language using a tutor or a computer program.  In the traditional scenario, students begin language study early, preferably in grade school or high school, and continue improving their acquired talent, with additional courses, throughout their undergraduate years.  They also can enhance their skills through disciplined independent study, informal encounters, and foreign travel.  Waiting to take language courses at the graduate level not only puts a student at a disadvantage when it comes to admission, but there is a financial drawback.  Graduate students in a language class sit with undergraduates, but they pay higher graduate tuition, and the credits do not count toward their degree.

Those who teach languages are best qualified to give advice about how to learn a foreign language, but the years of foreign-language study that I have completed enable me to pass on a few suggestions.  One of the most important features of learning a language is to build vocabulary.  Memorization is painful though crucial, but practical use does much to expand vocabulary.  Study lists of words in order to pass unit tests, but add more words by learning the names of everyday objects and common actions.  Placing signs on household items, learning one extra new word each day, and keeping lists of unknown words one encounters while reading and speaking are just some ways to increase language competency.

The mechanics of language learning also involve the acquisition of knowledge about the structure of the language.  Tables abound that explain verb conjugation as well as noun and adjective declension, but one cannot memorize these tables and conjure them up in one’s brain in the middle of a sentence.  Make the process more natural, much like a small child would do, by combining new words in various phrases.  (For example, practice such phrases as: It is in the refrigerator.  I am looking at the refrigerator.  I opened the refrigerator.  I will look in the refrigerator.)

Become culturally linked with the country or region where the language is prevalent.  Watch films without subtitles, even if the language level of the dialog is advanced (watching a film a second time will enhance comprehension).  Observe and imitate the sound of the language and its cadence.  Read publications and listen to music in that language.  Find Internet sites in that language with familiar content to build reading confidence.  One way of doing this is to look at a Wikipedia entry and click on one of the foreign languages that appears on the left-hand side of the page.  Foreign radio broadcasts on line have replaced most shortwave broadcasts, making foreign-language programs more available.  The web pages of foreign broadcast stations are useful for written content that summarizes some news already familiar to the reader.  Many radio sites also offer language courses.  Some addresses for Central European Internet broadcasters are listed in the News section of the External Links page of this web site.

Immersion is the best means of learning a language, but most cannot find the time and money to go abroad for long periods.  A little research will reveal intensive summer language programs in the United States, some of which offer scholarships.  Reasonably-priced trips abroad are an excellent opportunity for improving language ability, and foreign travel is appealing to graduate programs as well as potential employers, even if their business dealings are regional or local in nature.  If one has the good fortune to go abroad or if one must remain at home, make friends with someone who speaks the language, preferably one who wants to improve their English-language skills.  Trade informal lessons or arrange to speak the two languages on alternating days.  Exchanging letters and e-mails with someone also is valuable.

For many, learning a language is overwhelming because of fear that leads to a mental block or because of legitimate learning disabilities.  Sometimes it is easier to learn the components of a language individually and add to them over time.  The mastery of every language requires that one pronounce, read, write, speak, and comprehend.  For graduate students, reading is most important, and basic pronunciation skills should accompany any effort to read because good pronunciation aids in building vocabulary.  Some universities offer courses specifically for reading a language.  Books are available for self-study.  A willing tutor also can structure a language-acquisition program to meet the needs of those who want to read.  Afterward, the next step might involve comprehension, even though one usually acquires speaking and comprehension in tandem.  Finally, one can learn to write in the language.  The student of a foreign language never can isolate all of the individual components of a language–some writing is inevitable, even if one is only reading–but segregating them, to some extent, is one path toward achieving some degree of fluency.

Aside from the direct benefits of learning a foreign language, there are a surprising number of other unexpected advantages.  Learning another language makes one more aware of one’s own language, so the process of learning a foreign language usually enhances native-language skills.  Employers hold potential employees with additional languages in high regard, even though the business may not have international dealings.  Speaking an international foreign language, such as French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, or Chinese, can aid negotiations with foreign counterparts who normally speak yet another language.  Foreigners learn foreign languages more than Americans, so it would not be surprising to find that the Portuguese business professional speaks English, German, and Japanese.


There are those who claim that they are too old to learn a foreign language because their minds are already too inflexible.  Others claim that they want to begin language study, but the timing always is inconvenient.  More explain that they once had a rudimentary command of a language, but it is long gone (those same individuals will get on a bicycle or drive a standard transmission, after many years, with little difficulty).  While age, lack of time and money, inability to find a tutor, poor offerings in high schools and universities, and a host of other difficulties may appear to be valid reasons for delaying language study, the reality is that one must start.  The first steps are the most painful.  When one understands the first joke in a foreign language, sings the first song, writes the first letter, comprehends the first movie, or reads that first professional article, the pain of the past evaporates.  A foreign language allows us to adopt another persona, giving credence to that oft-repeated claim that a person is as many languages as they speak (polyglots know that, as an article from the BBC explains).  That “other world” about which bilingual and multilingual individuals speak does exist, and it is more engaging to be lost in it than in to become absorbed in any science fiction tale.
Rev. 10.II.2020