SAJU: Learning language acts as lens for questioning values

Column: Pride, Not Prejudice

We are constantly searching for words. 

Whether it is the seemingly inevitable Thanksgiving argument about politics or a last-minute class presentation about classical poetry, there are thoughts that get caught in our minds and sentences that cannot seem to escape our throats. 

Studying another language is one of the best chances an individual has to not only learn different words, but also different types of words. Learning a language is more than just an opportunity to expand your horizons or to see new ones. It is a skill that is honed through years of dedicated study — a gateway to escaping one culture or exploring another. 

Because English dominates the world like no other language, it is often seen as part of the chasm between the affluent and the impoverished. While learning English in a foreign country (outside the English-speaking landscape) can be understood as a ticket to social amelioration, English-speaking Americans do not place value on learning other languages. 

For example, a median of 92% of European students are learning a language in school, but only 20% of American K-12 students are enrolled in foreign language classes. New Jersey is actually the state with the highest percentage (51%) of students studying another language. 

The Modern Language Association found that from 2013 to 2016, colleges across the United States cut 651 foreign language programs. The association identified that the 2008 financial crisis was largely responsible for these cuts in budget, as foreign degree programs were hit harder than many other humanities programs. 

The cognitive benefits of learning a language are indisputable, but this positive is not the only reason to consider teaching children other languages in school. Studying outside the comfort of one’s linguistic abilities allows for the development of new frames of reference.

Choosing not to fund language learning, in an increasingly connected world, will have long term impacts on American society. There are significant benefits of multilingualism in every domain and occupation. 

Knowing another language opens up doors to new cultures and doors deep within oneself. It is crucial for the development of a global citizen, someone who is both linguistically and culturally fluent. Americans will choose to be passive participants in global business, technology and law if foreign language education is taken out of schools and colleges. 

Knowing only a single language is not only a cultural limitation, but even more, a lack of access to other ways of thought and perception,” according to The New York Times. Implicitly, by not feeling the need to learn another language, Americans also expect the rest of the world to have a working knowledge of English and immediately see things from their point of view. 

Even if an individual does not desire to travel and see the world, learning languages should be the norm in a country as diverse as this one. A new study shows how multilingual children, when compared to their monolingual friends, are better at understanding other people. 

Children ages 4 through 6 who are multilingual, non-fluent (children who have varying levels of language exposure) and monolingual were seated across the table from an adult. On the table, there were toy cars of varying shapes and sizes. While the child could see all of the cars, some of them were blocked from the adult’s view. 

When the adult said, "I see a small car," the child was asked to move the object they were referring to, but the smallest car was blocked from the adult’s perspective. The children who were multilingual and non-fluent chose to move a medium-sized car (which was the smallest from the adult’s point of view) 75% of the time while children without language skills or exposure only did so 50% of the time. 

Studying a language and developing a formal linguistic system is not analogous to good communication. Understanding intention means understanding perspective, and multilingual exposure is one medium of better connecting with other people. 

Language-learning is more than vocabulary and grammar rules  —  it is a lens for questioning the values of our own society. It allows us to hold a mirror to our culture and inspires us to look beyond ourselves. 

The variety of our world cannot be sampled in a single neighborhood or country ... but then what does it matter if one prefers a life surrounded by a wall?” according to The New York Times.

Neha Saju is a School of Arts and Sciences second-year student planning on majoring in political science and history and minoring in English. Her column, "Pride, Not Prejudice," runs on alternate Fridays. 


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