Why Study a Foreign Language

There are three principal purposes served by the study of foreign language: the cultural, the linguistic, and the practical.

No institution of higher education can be true to the principles of liberal learning if it fosters the illusion that there is only one culture that matters in the world.  Today’s world no longer permits a student’s horizons of personal experience to delimit what is worth knowing, to the exclusion of what other cultures have to say.  Language is the medium in which a culture encodes itself.  A culture’s values and its assumptions, its self-image and its future take form in its language and mold that language into the only system that communicates its essence.  The effort to learn a foreign culture without learning its language would be as impoverished as an attempt to learn mathematics without numbers, or music without notes--a mere abstraction deprived of its unique, signature medium of self-expression.  If we aim to prepare students to be citizens of the world, we must equip them with the means to interact with a culture foreign to their own.

Foreign language study develops a cognitive potential in the mind otherwise unstimulated in monolingual experience, that is, the mind’s faculty for encoding information for expression.  By removing the student from the comfortable linguistic context of lifelong habit and fixed, formulaic self-expression, the study of foreign language--whether contemporary or ancient--leads the student to translate abstract idea into concrete form without the aid of familiar idiom that experience has handed him or her since infancy.  Thus a student comes to learn directly that language involves not only vocabulary in the crafting of expression but also syntax and idiom, and that one’s native language is not the only system of syntax and idiom possible.  A student learns from experience that one-to-one, literal translation of words produces jibberish, and that language--any language--is not merely the grammar of his or her native tongue dressed up in foreign lexicon.  This linguistic component of language study--facets of the structure of language and the mind’s use of it--gives students knowledge and appreciation of the marvel of human language itself.

Practical considerations as well bespeak the need for foreign language study in a curriculum of higher education.  The business world is a world of vanishing borders, and international trade is now a fact of life in the marketplace.  Likewise, scholarship and research in all fields are not monolingual, and many graduate programs require competency in a foreign language.  Moreover, the United States, despite efforts to deny the fact, is polyglot: large resident populations of non-English speaking people, the tourism industry, and a non-native sector of the labor force, all are served by educated people who know more than one language.  Furthermore, in studying another language students gain the benefit of insight into their own language and culture which comes from the natural process of comparing and contrasting two systems.  Finally, the study of foreign language opens wider the door of convenient international travel.

By enriching students with access to a larger world, a college’s foreign language requirement helps fulfill the liberating aim of the institution’s curriculum and prepares students for a world in which countries are decreasingly isolated and increasingly interdependent.  At the same time, it develops the mind itself.  Hence, with these virtues of language study the student acquires the traditional mark of a well-educated person, namely knowledge of more than one language and culture.