WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Commentary: Learn the Lingo, and a Whole Lot More

Mar 11, 2020

Recently, I was struck by an ad I heard: "So who doesn't want to learn another language? But sitting for months in a classroom, learning? That's no fun!" I couldn't disagree more. About fifteen years ago, I began taking German courses in order to better communicate with my relatives in Bavaria, to aid my work as an academic librarian, and to broaden my horizons. Along the way, I also took two years of Japanese. I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Eventually my credits became a second baccalaureate degree, including study abroad in Germany.

Clearly, I’m a language nerd. 

When I visited Wales, where signs are bilingual, I spent hours comparing the words, puzzling out pronunciation rules. If my husband hadn’t dragged me out of an exhibit at Caernarfon Castle, I’d probably still be there. But you don’t have to overdo it like me. Any study of foreign language is worthwhile.

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, there are correlations between learning a foreign language and better reading, memory, attention, problem solving, and verbal and spatial abilities. Foreign language study also helps offset age-related cognitive losses. So research recommends it. Here’s what I’ve learned from personal experience.

Studying a foreign language taught me just as much about my first. The languages we speak today are time capsules. English is a construction made up of a core of Anglo-Saxon, with a few words from the Celts, then influenced by the Vikings, then mixed with Norman French, and liberally supplemented with words from every subsequent culture the English encountered or conquered. It is notoriously difficult to learn as a second language.

But complexity is not a dirty word. It’s a product of history, and besides that, a source of beauty. Learning German taught me the intricate structure of English—parts of speech, grammar, history of individual words—and thereby helped me to communicate better in both.

Language study also taught me about others’ societal norms. My two years of Japanese were interesting but challenging. The structure of the language is quite different from English and by attempting to learn it, I glimpsed how those of another culture can arrange their thoughts and relate to one another in unique ways. We are all humans, but the way we experience the world is influenced by the way we speak about it. I gained perspective on myself by seeing that my internal wiring is only one of many possibilities.

The most important thing that language study does for me is to humble me, repeatedly. I read from an early age and take my verbal skills for granted. So it has been profoundly humbling to try using German for even simple things: to order a meal in a restaurant, to introduce myself and make small talk. It is so uncomfortable not being able to say exactly what I want and to sound like a toddler at times. But these experiences have given me great respect for any person who studies abroad or immigrates. Unless you have tried learning a new language later in life, please don’t tell me that a person is lazy because they aren’t fluent six months after landing on new shores.

All this talk of complexity and the humbling nature of language study may sound off-putting. But my scariest moments are also ones of which I am proud: being placed in an international classroom while studying abroad and managing to stay afloat in a German-only environment along with students from South Korea, Israel, and Syria; backing myself into a verbal corner during my required oral competency test, by choosing to discuss Illinois’ financial crisis only to realize I couldn’t remember the German word for budget. I had to think on my feet and express myself using words I did know.

So yes, there are challenges, but I wholeheartedly urge you to study a foreign language. Learn to think around those words you can’t remember, get out of your comfort zone, and stand in the shoes of the newcomers in our midst. Your brain will be stretched and strengthened by the mental yoga and you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the world and your place in it.

Krista Bowers Sharpe is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Reference Services at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.