Learning Foreign Languages

       I was reminded of the importance of foreign language learning twice in the last week or so.  This morning I read a commentary in the New York Times about how poorly Americans do at foreign languages.  Several of the authors remind us that Americans have long done poorly at foreign language learning, and that demands for foreign language learning are declining in the United States, despite attempts by the Chinese government (and others) to get Americans into language classes.

      I am also on a Facebook group emphasizing the importance of German language learning in the United States.  Last week, someone from the “Standup for German Language” Facebook Group sent me a message reminding me to re-emphasize the importance of that language.  Consider this post part of this re-emphasis!

      The problem with language learning in the United States is that pragmatic Americans believe that science and math are the fields that have the greatest demand for jobs in the immediate future, and therefore schools are justified in beefing up math and science requirements, and canceling foreign language programs.  This may be true in the short-run.  But foreign language learning is not divorced completely from the development of cognitive abilities in other fields as well.

     The best piece of evidence of this is that the countries which do best in various kinds of cross-national testing in math and science skills, like Finland, and South Korea, also have stiff requirements for foreign language learning.  Both require English in primary school, and push their children in to third and fourth languages as well, even as they cram on science and math.  While correlation does not always imply causation, it contributes to my belief that language learning as a cognitive process contributes to our abilities in other fields as well. 

      If nothing else, language learning also contributes to our sense of humility, too, which is always a good thing!

2 Responses to “Learning Foreign Languages”

  1. Benjamin B says:

    I’m guessing that experts in math and science could just as easily say the same things about the state of math and science education in the US.

  2. Tony says:

    Hi Benjamin:
    I would not be surprised if proficiency in math/science helped people learn languages, too.

    But the relationship breaks down when it comes to funding, at least in the United States. Funding of foreign language instruction is in long-term decline, and is no longer required for high school or college graduation in most cases. The same cannot be said for science and math which continues to be tested for and required at early ages.

    In mainland Europe, English instruction is being expanded into the very earliest years. English instruction in Finland, which tops international comparisons in math, starts very early. The same goes for a number of countries in Asia like China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, etc. There is also an assumption that most students will take up a third language. The article in the NY Times describes this well.

    Tony

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