Do I Really Need a Foreign Language?

By Destinee Hodge March 12th, 2014 5:00 PM

“Señorita, I don’t know any Spanish people, I don’t think I need to learn Spanish.”

“Why can’t we just learn English? Spanish is too hard.”

“I speak English, that’s enough.”

These, among others, are some of the complaints I’ve received from my students (especially at the beginning of the year). Coupled with the fact that English and math scores take center stage across the education sector, it often makes defending foreign language (FL) instruction even more of an uphill battle.

When I first started this job, it was hard for me to understand why some of my students did not inherently want to learn a new language. Having grown up on a Caribbean island replete with Spanish-speakers and people of different cultures, I understood that to have the best experience, I needed to be able to communicate with others. As I got older I realized how unique an experience my upbringing was.  I thought the best way to continue to discover new things about other cultures and share my knowledge was through teaching.

It took me a while to understand that, as a teacher, it is my responsibility to take my students out of their comfort zone in a way that their immediate environment doesn’t. Many of my students truly only interact with people who look, sound and dress exactly like them. Why should they be interested in learning about others?

Some of my students were immediately onboard with learning a foreign language. They already had an experience where they saw how knowing a foreign language could benefit them.  But for those students without a zeal or curiosity to learn about other cultures, traditional methods of encouraging them to be invested didn’t work. Phrases like “It’ll help you do well in high school” or “you can get a better job” weren’t enough to motivate them.

I came up with my top five reasons for learning a new language that I’ve used to invest my students at the beginning of the year. While I could go into so many studies, the fact that in 2018 there will be a FL NAEP test, or any other piece of evidence, I find that the simplest things are what get the students on board to give the FL experience a try. Of course, my examples relate to Spanish, but these benefits are applicable to any FL!

1. It makes you smarter

Learning a new language causes you to make connections and spark new synapse pathways. Not only that, but in learning the grammar and vocabulary in a different language, it strengthens your knowledge of your own first language. Smarter overall and reinforcing knowledge you already have? That sounds like a good deal to me. (source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html)

2. More communication = More money and more competitive

Try to think of one profession in which you would never encounter someone who speaks a different language. Let me know if you come up with one. In the meantime, let’s talk about the fact that currently, employers are desperate for people who can communicate in more than one language. Less communication equates to less money and being less competitive. If we’re talking about the competition, Americans are vastly behind. A recent article by Forbes detailed –among other things- that 18% of Americans report speaking more than one language compared to around 53% of Europeans. That’s almost three times more! In my personal experience, even though I have a full-time job as a teacher, I’ve sometimes been able to make an extra dime here and there by translating a written work or at an event. Who doesn’t want more money? And who doesn’t want to be able to compete for a better-paying job?

3. You can meet new people (or just be nosey)

I have met so many people in unexpected places as a result of speaking Spanish. I’ve helped people find the right bus route, made friends when I went out to eat, or even just on the metro. For the nosier people out there, I can even surreptitiously listen in on conversations because people do not always assume I speak Spanish. If nothing else, it’s extremely empowering.

4. You can be exposed to a new culture

You may think that carryout and go-go are the end all be all, but I’d gladly introduce you to empanadas, bachata and everything in between. There are so many cultures associated with the Spanish language that you could spend the rest of your life listening to new music or trying new food and still not discover everything.  Perhaps French or Portuguese are more up your alley? Zouk, Samba and Escargot Pizza are all open for you to try. You’d be so surprised how passionate you can become about a new cultural experience.

5. Even some of the biggest celebrities realize that it’s important to branch out and reach a new set of people

Beyoncé. Drake. Nicki Minaj. You probably don’t think “Spanish” when you hear these names but these are just a few examples of stars who realize that communicating with people who speak a different language is important. Imagine- they have all the fans in the world and they’re still trying to reach the Latin market? That says something. Don’t believe me? Check out some of their music here:

Beyoncé- http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20016367,00.html

Drake- “Odio” http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/latin-notas/5893899/romeo-santos-drake-odio-latin-airplay-chart

Nicki Minaj- “Animales”- http://theboombox.com/nicki-minaj-romeo-santos-animales/

Usually after I present my five reasons (with a little help from videos and food samples) I have most of my middle school classes ready to give it all a go. For high school I might add the Advanced Placement/ college application tidbit. Sharing my own language learning struggles and successes typically adds the icing to the cake. At the end of the day, the same things that motivate us motivate our students. If our leader can explain why a specific goal is important to our lives, we are extremely invested. I try to apply that philosophy to investing my students.

Destinee Hodge is a Spanish teacher at Kelly Miller Middle School.

Advertisements