Why We Learn Languages
Some of my favorite moments as a Spanish teacher are when a student comes to class excited to share about an interaction that they had using the Spanish language. “I ordered food at a restaurant this weekend,” one tells me. “I attended Spanish Mass and learned some new words,” another shares. Every time one of them is able to help someone with a question or just say hello, these acts become small breadcrumbs, tiny mile markers in a journey to proficiency that can feel long and undefined.
I’m thankful that we live in a city where such interactions are possible. These interactions allow easy access to what I believe is one of the most important requisites for success in learning a second language: that they not only see the pragmatic, theoretical value in learning the language, but connect with something or someone in the culture. They must go from regarding the language as a relic, sliced and diced into its constituent parts on the page of a textbook, to knowing it personally as a medium for transmitting living, dynamic messages with people that they care about talking to. This distinction mirrors the difference between merely knowing biographical facts about a person and knowing that person.
I hear many reasons proffered for why we should learn languages. One I hear most often has to do with future job prospects. Knowing other languages has opened many doors for me professionally, but as a 12-year-old who took it upon herself to learn Spanish outside of school, professional prospects were completely beside the point. I learned Spanish because there was someone I wanted to talk to and get to know. Many people around the world who know that their job or their college diploma depends on a mastery of the English language dread this requirement. What makes the difference is real-life connections.
The world tells us and our children to gather knowledge, credentials, and accolades so that we can “compete,” and in many cases, in order to pad our egos. It is wise to question these motivations in every other area. We don’t want scientists and doctors who practice merely to show what feats they can accomplish, but scientists who harness an affinity for their field and the virtues of their service. The ability to speak and learn multiple languages should also be linked to and mediated through the ethos of putting people first. Done well, language instruction can set the tone for this.
In class, we learn about the culture that is bound up with the language we are learning. Undoubtedly, this is interesting, but we also learn to respect and value other people’s manner of doing things. We practice the habit of looking for the good in what is unfamiliar and different from us. We discuss my students’ lives, their likes and dislikes, their opinions, and their reactions to this new culture they are encountering—even in the most rudimentary ways. Certainly, this creates a personal hook, but it also models seeking connection with others and placing value on them. It models to students that the most important thing is not to be 100% correct when speaking but that one should be sincere and eager to understand the other person and find out more about them.
In a prayer our family says at meals, we pray, “…make us ever mindful of the needs of others.” I love this prayer. It calls me back to my task of looking for, thinking of, and trying to meet others’ needs, rather than my own interests. This applies not only to others’ needs but also to their experiences. This prayer perpetually calls me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The best reason to teach young people languages is so that they have an ingrained orientation to seek connection with and value for others above themselves. Their default, then, is to respectfully listen and consider other points of view. Which, in turn, will cultivate a skill for serving others and making them feel welcome and cared for.