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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Why Learn Languages?


When people ask me how many languages I speak, I get embarrassed, not because I’m bashful about it, but because I take the question seriously. What does it mean to speak a language? It’s a lot more than being able to utter a few phrases (or even to get by haltingly). Yet why should the speaking of languages be such an oddity, anyway? It’s important, enlightening, challenging, and fun. You get to read literature that would otherwise have been out of reach (except through translation). You gain perspective on English (or your native language, whatever that might be). You learn words and concepts that have no easy translation. You meet people you would not otherwise have met. You end up laughing more in total, since you get more jokes. You defy at least one stereotype of Americans (that they expect everyone to speak English). Given the increasing internationalization of our colleges and the many opportunities for work and study abroad, schools should do more to emphasize languages.

Yes, but what does this take? A language towers over the best of minds. A few years of high school study won’t get you far, unless the courses are exceptionally good. You have to immerse yourself in it, read it, hear it, struggle within it, for hours on end, day after day–and then it starts to come together.

I learn most quickly and thoroughly when I sit with language I don’t yet understand. I take it into my ear and mind; I listen for words, phrases, and structures that I recognize. My mind starts to put it together, and before long, I understand much more than before. Of course I need some comprehension too, but the initial incomprehension also plays a role. It forces the mind to work to recognize patterns.

With the abundant language resources available on the internet, schools can offer students some degree of immersion. Students can listen to radio, poetry, speeches, audiobooks, songs, and plays; read news and literature sites; and engage in conversation with tutors over Skype.  Schools around the world can collaborate with relative ease; in May I taught for two weeks in Istanbul as a result of such a collaboration.

But resources in themselves are not enough; you can’t just say “it’s all out there on the internet” and then expect schools and students to know what to do. To teach languages well, schools must have a curriculum.

What would it contain? I would recommend a combination of systematic instruction with immersion of various kinds. Students should learn not only basic conversational language but the language of specific domains. This builds not only knowledge and vocabulary, but logic; each domain has its particular ways of reasoning, and if you can recognize them in another language, you have a way not just of expressing yourself, but of saying something about the world.

If students study both an ancient and a modern language, they will gain insight into the origins of modern languages and the nature of inflection. They come to recognize, for instance, that the sentence “All that said, we have decided not to go” is grammatically correct; “all that said” is not a dangling participial phrase but an absolute construction (similar to the ablative absolute in Latin). They realize that words have long histories, with changes of meaning along the way; “silly,” for instance, comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root as “solace.” Also, there can be intense beauty in ancient and medieval texts; if you read even a few verses of Ecclesiastes in Hebrew, or Sophocles’s Antigone in Greek, or Horace’s Odes in Latin, you have something to carry through life.

So, at school after school, let the languages begin, grow, multiply, thrive! But within a curriculum; do not overlook that curriculum.

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