There are many practical reasons why students can benefit from learning another language. Neighborhoods grow more diverse, with many languages spoken in vicinities where English once prevailed. Employment is increasingly global in nature, and those who speak more than one language may have greater opporutnities than those who do not. Cooperation among nations in trade, policy, and environment is facilitated when participants speak each other's languages. The simple face of the Internet and the ease with which we exchange information around the world and with speakers of all the world's languages indicates the practical value of speaking more than one of them ourselves.
The reasons to study world languages go beyond the practical, however. Global competence explicitly requires the ability to understand one's own culture as well as others. Since language both shapes and reflects culture and human experience, learning another language opens a door to understanding the people who speak that language and the culture in which they live, in ways that cannot be replicated by any other means.
In the recent past, foreign language curricula have focused on building proficiency and on learning "survival language," providing students with the vocabulary, structures, and phrases needed to communicate at a basic level if ever they found themselves traveling in another country. The emphasis was on learning about "the other" to the degree necessary to check into a hotel or order in a cafe.
In the 21st century, the needs of our language students have changed dramatically. Instead of using language simply as a tool for survival in a foreign land, students must embrace it as a tool for empowerment and collaboration with peers both at home and abroad. Political boundaries between countries are seemingly more arbitrary to this generation of learners, as social media put students in direct contact with their global neighbors in new and more interactive ways. They no longer need to board a plane in order to put their skills to use. To meet these changing needs, our students need a deeper and more nuanced understanding of culture and context, and of how differing values and norms affect communication, action, and our relationships with the world.
With exposure to world languages and opportunities to use them in authentic settings, students gain valuable skills that are transferable to other subject areas and integral to their ability to engage as global citizens. Through language study, students become resourceful and respond to new situations and cultural contexts with ease. They can cultivate meaningful relationships with others based on shared understanding and mutual respect. Through the use of emerging technologies, world language students can communicate directly and effectively with real-world partners. Studying other languages allows students to reflect on how language is structured and how their own language can be used as a tool for communication, persuasion, and negotiation. Studying other cultures gives students a deeper appreciation for their home culture and the values that affect their interactions with others. When learning about others in a collaborative environment, students are invariably curious and eager to learn more.
To learn about Asia Society's professional development opportunities for teachers and leaders in global competence, contact Kate Farmer [[email protected]].