The educational rationale for studying a foreign language can be divided into three main categories of benefits: economic, civic and cultural, and intellectual.
The study of foreign languages is especially valuable in California, where a rich diversity of cultural traditions is represented and where one out of four immigrants to the United States eventually settles.
The study of foreign languages benefits California and its students by:
Why has the ability to communicate in another language long been regarded as an essential element of a well-rounded education? What benefits could a speaker of English, who is a member of the second largest speech community in the world, gain from studying another language?
Ask any multilingual individual those questions and you are likely to be greeted with
a few seconds of silence before hearing an answer. There are many reasons to learn
a foreign language-as many as the people who speak it. Language is a means of contact
with other human beings. However, the educational rationale for studying a foreign
language can be divided into three main categories of benefits: economic, civic and
cultural, and intellectual.
On a pragmatic level, schools in California as well as in other states need to develop more individuals with strong skills in a second language as a matter of long-range economic self-interest. For example, the United States is developing economic and social ties to the Soviet Union. Yet the development of our relationship with the Soviet Union could be curtailed because of a lack of qualified American-born speakers of Russian .In fact, there are more teachers of English in the Soviet Union than there are students of Russian in the United States.
Also, two-thirds of the translating jobs at the U.S. Department of State are filled by foreign-born individuals because properly trained American-born candidates are not available. In addition, the world has changed since World War II. The language of business is no longer exclusively English; rather, it is the language of the customer and, too often, our sales representatives do not speak the same language. For example, Pepsi Cola's marketing plan for Southeast Asia did not succeed because when translated into Thai its "Come Alive" slogan read, "It raises your ancestors from the dead."
What is true about our nation's need for speakers of other languages is also true for California. California, situated on the West Coast, is a natural gateway for trade with the countries of the Pacific Rim. Two reports on California's economic future, sponsored by the executive and legislative branches of government, included the same recommendation--that schools provide additional instruction in foreign languages.
A less obvious but equally compelling reason to promote the study of foreign languages is the power language has to foster improved understanding between peoples of various cultural backgrounds.
Culture is embedded in language. The Department's goal for developing students who can communicate effectively in at least one foreign language includes "appropriate cultural sensitivity" as a quality to be to be nurtured in foreign language classes. For example, a student of Japanese might learn that a request from an associate in Japan is rarely refused point-blank but that various cues communicate a polite no. A student of Arabic might come to understand that the terms for host and guest imply more social obligations in the Middle East than they do in the United States.
However, every student of foreign languages eventually discovers that cultural conventions differ from society to society. Some cultural conventions reflect genuine differences in the hierarchy of values, while others simply conceal a deeper human commonality that transcends place and time. This "cosmopolitanizing" function of studying a foreign language is valuable to a country such as the United States, which was founded on the belief that out of many traditions one nation could be established (e pluribus unum). And the study of foreign languages is especially valuable in California, where a rich diversity of cultural traditions is represented and where one out of four immigrants to the United States eventually settles.
The third benefit of studying another language is its salutary effect on students' intellectual development. Obviously, students with skills in a foreign language gain direct access to the literature of the language, with all the mental stimulus the acquisition implies. In addition, poets and writers have long contended that knowledge of a foreign language helps speakers better understand their native language in a way that studying the native language directly never could. That is, to student their native language is transparent and unremarkable. Only when they step outside the all-enveloping medium of language and begin to experience a second language's idiosyncracies do the nuances and texture of their own language become obvious. In addition, insights gained by students in a foreign language class are transferable across the curriculum. For example, analysis of recent scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) suggests that the study of a foreign language for one or two years (in grades four to six) will result in improved scores in standardized tests of proficiency in one's native language.
In summary, for students, learning a new language can be an asset in the job market, a spur to personal and intellectual growth, a source of increased self-esteem, and an enjoyable experience. For California and the nation, developing more people with advanced skills in a second language results in many economic, civic, and cultural benefits. Clearly, the benefits justify the investment.