What really makes us learn a language?
In a recent Huffington Post article, Amelia Friedman writes about the disproportionate number of American students studying western European languages versus languages spoken in other parts of the world. In addition to often having a greater number of native speakers, these less-studied tongues, especially those spoken in emerging markets, can lead to career opportunities, as well as a chance to improve lives through social advocacy.
Sadly, no matter how compelling Friedman’s message is, I’m not sure if it’s enough to spark a major change.
Anyone who’s studied a foreign language in school knows that it takes more than the promise of future opportunity to make a language stick — and to make you want to stick with it. As a bilingual ESL teacher, I’ve found that there are two crucial language-learning motivations: necessity and passion.
Necessity is when someone has no choice: if they don’t learn to speak a language, they won’t be able to keep their job, for example. Even then, it doesn’t always work. I’ve taught French employees in American companies’ Paris branches who struggle even to write coherent English emails. It’s human nature to find the easiest solution; instead of learning their company’s lingua franca, they would ask a bilingual co-worker for help, or use translation software.
Passion, on the other hand, seems to be a consistently powerful force in language learning. I’ve had students whose English abilities blew me away. Some hadn’t even studied the language in school. When I’d ask how they got so good, they’d tell me things like, “I’ve just always liked how English sounds”, or “I love Hollywood movies.” One woman even ‘fessed up to an obsession with the pop culture website Buzzfeed. As for me, a passion for Paris is why I’m fluent in French.
To love a language, you have to get to know it. But most U.S. public schools only offer foreign language options based on the traditionally predominant historical and cultural influences on American society (that is, mostly western European languages). History classes also rarely cover many places outside the western world; like most American students, I was never taught anything significant about, say, Tamil or Javanese language or culture. Maybe if we were exposed to a more global way of learning, more of us would be motivated to give non-Western European languages a try.
If you’re thinking about learning a less familiar language, or if you want to learn any foreign language, for that matter, here are some tips to help you choose one, and to hopefully spark that crucial passion:
– Learn about the history and culture associated with the language.
– If you can, travel. Going where a language is spoken and interacting with those who speak it is a great way to start a linguistic love affair.
– Sample a culture’s cinema, literature, music, and more. The internet makes this incredibly simple.
– Take advantage of free language learning resources available online and at your local library.
– Make a human connection. Participating in a language exchange or having a tutor who’s a native speaker is a great way to learn how a language is really spoken — and it puts a human face on an abstract concept.
Written by: Alysa Salzberg
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