Saturday, March 22, 2014

What's the Value of Learning a Foreign Language in College?

by Ann Abbott

Some people complain about Facebook and say, "I don't care what the people I went to high school with had for lunch."

Facebook is so compelling for me because I have a wonderful group of friends who entertain and educate me with their posts. Because they are wonderful thinkers and conversationalists in real life, this also transfers over to their Facebook interactions.

Valerie Wilhite is one of my favorite Facebook friends. We were both graduate students at the University of Illinois, and she shares her passions for language, cultures, literatures and histories with the students of the University of Oregon. (I highly encourage you to read Valerie's bio; she tells wonderful stories about the powers of language, cultures and people.)

A few days ago, she posted this Freakonomics podcast "Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?"

One way to react to the feedback is to simply dismiss the notion of assigning economic value to everything.
  • Should we ask what the economic return of a visit to a museum is? 
  • Should we assign differing dollar values to the friends and family we spend time with? 
No. Learning, exercising your brain, engaging yourself in different types of learning, those are all valuable in and of themselves. Learning a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language also develops some really important personal characteristics that in the end might be just as "valuable" as the language itself.
  • Humility. You will say something stupid.
  • Empathy. You should develop a new appreciation for English-language learners.
  • Patience. You have to slow waaaaay down to express your complex thoughts in a new language.
  • Responsibility. When you don't understand something, you have to use your tools to bring the conversation back to your level of understanding: "Mas despacio, por favor." "Repita la primera palabra, por favor." "No entiendo. Ayuda!"
  • Comfort with ambiguity. You will not understand everything you read or hear, and yet you will still be able to make sense of it. That's such an important life lesson.
  • And so much more. 
Valerie asked her friends to share their thoughts. And I decided to engage with the issues in the podcast, not dismiss them. (To protect other people's privacy, I will only post my part of the conversation.) 

Thanks, Valerie, I thought that was actually a very interesting podcast. Like your other friends, I also reject the notion that we have to frame everything we learn in school around the notion of how much money will it make you. However, I do understand that our students (and their parents) have very real concerns about their work-lives after college.
  • I think they painted ROI with a very broad brush. I think knowing another language is more important in some fields/jobs than others. I also think that instead of asking whether knowing Spanish (for example) earns you more money in a job, in a very competitive job market we might ask if Spanish could be the thing that actually gets you the job over another person who is monolingual. You might not have a higher salary, but at least you have a salary!
  • From my experiences with international businesses, employers are often looking more for a kind of global literacy than a specific language proficiency. They want people who can travel with ease, create relationships with people from all kinds of different places/cultures, and who have a kind of savoir faire that comes from translingual and transcultural experiences.
  • If you don't have the hard skills that a job requires, knowing Spanish (or Hebrew, Arabic, etc.) won't do you any good. We need to stop saying "Spanish will open all kinds of doors for you!" I think that it's more accurate and fair to say that Spanish combined with some other well-developed, sought-after skills will open doors for you. If my husband is looking for a marketer, he needs someone who has studied/has experience with marketing. Spanish is a plus.
  • I think our language teaching profession is wonderful and does great work, but I also think that's it's okay to look at it with a critical eye and question what we do and how we do it. I think we make a lot of claims we can't necessarily back up, especially regarding transcultural competence.
  • Thank you, Valerie , for being one of my favorite interlocutors about all things regarding languages. We share the same passion for languages, learning and thinking. Being surrounded by languages and people from other cultures makes my life (and yours, too, I know) infinitely richer. That's one heck of a ROI in my book. 

What are your thoughts about the podcast? What do you think about Facebook as a place to exchange ideas? Be an interlocutor: Leave a comment! 

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