Monday, April 26, 2021
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Foreign language gains

An American student steps off of an international flight. The sun is shining in Stockholm, but the student doesn’t hear English echoing through the airport halls.

The student is immersed—more like bombarded—with Swedish, German, French, Japanese and a few other tongues never heard before.

A deep breath and a Hail Mary send the student up to the airport’s customer service desk. A tall, blond Swede sweetly smiles back at the student. “Hej hej!” she said. The student timidly says, “I only speak English.”

With a melodic cadence the Swede quickly responds, “Okay, how can I help you?”

When the Swedish attendant spoke English to me, I felt secure again. But I dreaded the long series of awkward cultural encounters to come.

Come they did not.

Why? Because many Swedish people speak English.

And Finnish, and Norwegian, and German, and French and probably a few others they didn’t mention because they didn’t want to alienate the American girl.

The same can be said for the Germans, the Norwegians and even the Latvians I encountered. Most of which were able to speak my first language to me better than most Americans can.

Nothing will make you feel more intellectually inferior than realizing Europeans have been speaking multiple languages since childhood. And after that, they learned a few more.

My biggest regret about studying abroad was not learning the language of the country I was studying in.

My study abroad experience opened my eyes to the shortcomings of the American educational philosophy.

To fulfill UMKC’s general education requirements I took Spanish.

Would I say I am a fluent Spanish speaker? I was once. I’m out of practice now.

Do I wish I was fluent? Absolutely.

I took Spanish because it is slowly encroaching on English in America. Products have been redesigned to include Spanish instructions. Customer service telephone numbers offer response options in Spanish.

The Hispanic American population is growing at unprecedented rates.

I’m thrilled American-English has found a new friend on the playground. It’s about time.

Of course, there are always going to be those who feel otherwise.

For those who feel the pains of learning a foreign language, I encourage you to look across the pond.

Speaking to multilingual Europeans was my reality check.

They know more than one language because they interact with more than one culture, and they don’t drag their feet about it.

Let’s anticipate what the critic is thinking, “Americans don’t have to study foreign languages because we don’t live on a small continent with lots of different languages.”

Spare me.

The cultural and racial demographics of American culture are changing and to avoid accusations of bigotry we’ve got to change, too.

Critics of foreign language studies have labeled it a waste of time, money and energy.

Perhaps it is a waste if you can’t see the value of learning a foreign language right off the bat.

Look a little closer.

In a competitive world, the strong survive. Students who can speak a foreign language fluently will receive special preference from future employers.

If scoring a job in today’s job market isn’t reason enough, look no further than our globalized community.

Try asking an English as a Second Language (ESL) student about the value of learning a foreign language.

I frequently work with ESL students at UMKC’s Writing Center.

These students have taught me a lot about other cultures and oftentimes they enjoy learning about writing in a foreign language because they realize the tremendous benefits that come with learning a foreign language.

In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted research on multilingual individuals. The study showed that foreign language learners were more successful academically, more culturally aware, and received more career opportunities than their monolingual counterparts.

I can’t fathom a student wouldn’t thank his or her lucky stars that UMKC has foreign language requirements.

I am glad my university hasn’t let me off easy.

I am thrilled that the degree I will receive in May isn’t a joke but a sparking addition to my résumé.

jhoermann@unews.com

 

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