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Why study a foreign language? (06/02/2013)
By Chris Rogers

¿Hablas español? Parlez-vous français?

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Does it matter?

English is the primary language of the United States and the current tongue of choice for international business. Aspiring translators and international jet-setters may benefit from Mandarin Chinese class, but for the average person, what is the point of studying a foreign language?

The Winona Area Public School Board has agreed that expanding foreign language education is a priority, but in times of limited resources (such as the one currently faced by the board) language programs are often among the first to be cut. The Board has expressed a desire to develop a robust language program that will attract students and that will survive lean years. But why focus on foreign language in the first place? Is foreign fluency a novelty for the few or fundamental to quality education?

The Winona Post spoke with teachers, students, and business leaders who made a case for teaching languages.

'A competitive edge'

"We do business in over 100 countries; about 25 percent of all sales are outside of the US," said Steven Blue, President and CEO of Miller Felpax. The Winona-based locomotive parts company has big markets in South America — including Portuguese-speaking Brazil — Europe, and China, and the list is expanding. Having employees with foreign language skills "is really important when you have that much of a presence of your business overseas," Blue continued.

Blue's salespeople travel to make deals with customers and solicit new ones. Company engineers go abroad to develop solutions for customers. Blue estimates that about half of his 30-some office workers have foreign language skills. He and other executives value bilingualism in job candidates, he said. "If you're fluent in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, that's going to stand out amazingly well on a resume."

English may be the dominant language of international business deals, but being able to follow even the gist of customers' native tongues is a terrific asset, Blue said. He described negotiating a deal with a Brazilian company. Although Blue and his potential customers spoke through a translator, being able to follow his customers' deliberations made a huge difference. "As the conversation would flow, I could tell generally what was being talked about. I could tell when there were cases of conflict, and cases of agreement," he explained.

Blue added that the time is fast arriving when international business will not be conducted in English. The preeminence of English as a language of exchange is due to the U.S.'s economic power, but "there will come a time when China is the dominant economic superpower," Blue said. "You're going to see a time, certainly in the next generation, when Mandarin Chinese is the universal business language," he continued.

Domestically, demand for bilingual workers is rising as well. Sarah Johnson studied Spanish at Cotter High School and later at Concordia Language Villages. As a medical relief worker, being able to speak Spanish fluently gave Johnson incredible opportunities in her field. Johnson said she had always seen language as something fun, not an employable skill, until she discovered that Winona Health was desperate for medical translators and began working with Spanish-speaking patients there.

Johnson, who has studied Chinese and will spend the next several months in France learning French before returning to work in international medicine, says that learning languages is still very fun to her, but now there is more purpose behind it. French will allow her to do more for patients in the Congo and Haiti and will make her that much more valuable as a job candidate.

"It gives you a competitive edge," Johnson said. "Jobs are more and more competitive these days and any field you go into, it gives you a competitive edge."

Former Winona Senior High School Spanish teacher and current School Board member Ben Baratto said many of his former students are applying their Spanish skills at Mayo Clinic now. Another former student is working at a retail store and told Baratto he outsells his colleagues every time Spanish-speakers visit the store because he can woo them in their native tongue.

With a growing Hispanic population in America, an increasing number of industries have need of bilingual workers.

Culture through language

Learning a foreign language exposes students to new cultures, ways of thinking, and points of view, develops their cognitive ability, makes them more open-minded, and able to interact with people from those cultures, supporters say.

Blue said that accommodating cultural differences is fundamental in international business. Understanding customers' and partners' language and culture is a crucial skill, he said. "You have to accommodate their culture."

Students can learn about foreign cultures in English, up to a point. However, "if you have figured out how languages are put together, after a while you get to the core of the culture," said Uli Schorn-Hoffert, who teaches English as a Second Language and German at Cotter High School.

Baratto agreed that learning a language enables students to better understand that culture and often the mechanics of a language teaches one about the culture. Vietnamese, for example, has different words for "you" when referring to people who are older or younger than oneself. The respectful word "you" used for elders indicates the value of seniority in Vietnamese culture.

What is more, the experience of learning another language gives students a real understanding of the many ways of expressing points of view in the world, supporters say. "It humanizes the other," Schorn-Hoffert said. Students become "more complex people because of it," she added. "They think things through a little differently."

While foreign language supporters agreed that immigrants to America should try to learn English, they said that it shows empathy and builds connections when Anglophones go to the trouble of learning even a few phrases in that person's native language. "It shows that we are tuned into to other people and not just self-centered, and demand that other people know our language," Baratto said.

"Whether you're a nurse or in business or a politician, if you can speak the language, it shows the extra effort," Johnson said. It builds trust, respect, and connections, she added.

After learning a new language themselves, students become more understanding of the difficulties immigrants face, supporters said.

Burgeoning brains

Business, employment, and travel are classic reasons for learning a foreign language, but there is a fundamental value even for folks who may never leave the U.S. or work with foreign speakers, according to Schorn-Hoffert. Learning a new system of thinking, expressing, and understanding promotes "mental flexibility," she explained. "German sentence structure and verb endings, that's a new challenge for students. For Chinese students, they don't have articles like 'a' and 'the' [in Chinese]." For herself, learning the tones that differentiate otherwise identical words in Chinese pushed Schorn-Hoffert mentally.

"Cognitive, analytical abilities are challenged by that. There are parts of the brain that are stimulated by trying to think through a different system," Schorn-Hoffert said.

Paradoxically, studying foreign languages helps students understand English better, Baratto said. Many of his students would truly understand what a direct object was after learning about how they function in Spanish grammar. Having that other point of reference allowed students to understand grammar better, he explained.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages cites numerous studies offering evidence that learning a second language increases students' cognitive ability and boosts academic performance across the board. See www.actfl.org for more information.

Are foreign language skills an absolute necessity? Perhaps, not, said Johnson and Schorn-Hoffert, but they expand possibilities and enrich life. "You can get through life without it," laughed Schorn-Hoffert, "but your life will be so much better, so much richer for it."

"You're at a major disadvantage if you never grew up with that foundation," Johnson said of early foreign language education. "It's like trying to learn an instrument when you never grew up playing music." She added, "You could live pretty sheltered unaware of the gift you could have."

"Learning a language truly opens doors for you," said Schorn-Hoffert who worked as an interpreter for a composites manufacturer when she first came to Winona. "You take something away from a young person if you don't offer them that opportunity." 


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