Friday, February 3, 2012

Learn Another Language, After All

Getting back to the post about Lawrence Summers' essay on changes in U.S. higher education, the short discussion Summers had on the need for learning other languages was included in the New York Times' Room for Debate forum.

Obviously, I disagree with Summers' statement that "English's emergence as the global language [...] make[s] it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue us universally worthwhile." My reasons coincide with Summers' six interlocutors: 1) you actually do need other languages because 2) English really is not as global as we think; and besides, 3) there are many intangible but huge benefits to foreign language learning.

Here are a few choice quotes from the responses to Summers:
  • Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, a globally successful monolingual, says of her experience, "Few starting out today could succeed as I did speaking only English." (practical)
  • Anthony Jackson says, "While English remains the most-used language on the Internet, [...] Chinese is catching up quickly, along with many other languages." (necessary)
  • Michael Erard, author of a recent book study on hyperpolyglottery, says, "[Studying another language is] always a worthwhile investment, in both economic and cognitive terms, even if the value isn't immediately calculable." (advantageous)
  • Melanie Ho says, "The process of learning to communicate in a foreign language often forces us to learn how to listen." Also, "Although English is common around the world, it is far from universal." (cultural & personal)
  • Marcelo M. Suárez Orozco has the best long quotation: "Learning a foreign language is about a way of being in the world, not about getting the next deal done. It telecasts respect for one’s interlocutor and cognitive curiosity even as it nourishes the brain’s jewel in the crown, its executive function. Indeed, neuroscience is beginning to show that the brains of bilinguals may have advantages in what will matter most in the global era: managing complexity, rational planning and meta-cognition." (cognitive)
  • Finally, in Clayton Lewis' words, "Let’s recognize what the Chinese, Brazilians and Germans have learned: that knowing two or more languages is an advantage, not a burden."

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