If you and your child have college on the horizon, most programs require a minimum of two or more years of the same foreign language at the high school level. While it isn’t unusual to wonder how German, for example, might be used for a career in engineering or graphic design, the logic behind this requirement is sound. Mastering a foreign language sharpens the intellect. If you haven’t chosen a foreign language for your student, now is the perfect time to weigh your options and advantages.
Benefits of Language Learning
Before we talk about picking the right language, or debate how to teach it best, let’s weigh the benefits of a foreign language for every student, even those who don’t plan to go to college or those with special challenges. Most of us can understand there are benefits to learning a language when we have an event on the horizon such as foreign travel, interest in a mission field, a desire to communicate better with a relative, an inbound foreign exchange student, preparation for a specific field, or interest in exploring one’s heritage. The least appealing enticement to master a second language is that most universities expect it, with no explanation or qualification offered. Few wish to risk disqualifying children from their dream careers, so they obey the “because I told you so” command from universities, but, why do they tell us so?
Two years of any subject during high school can seem burdensome, especially when your unenthusiastic teen demands to know how Mandarin or German will help her in the real world. The truth is the hard work of foreign language is worthwhile in more ways than the immediately obvious task of conversing with foreigners. Language studies positively influence how a student learns—not just the language itself, but any subject. The first benefit kicks in a few chapters into the curriculum. Learning another tongue allows us to understand our own as though we have turned on the light in a dark closet. Our ability to read, write, and communicate will improve measurably once we teach our brain to function in two languages instead of just one. Advanced language studies make us mindful communicators and clearer thinkers. One study that introduced Latin and Classical subjects to a test group found “overall gains in word knowledge, reading, language, spelling, math computation, math concepts, math problem solving, and social studies”1 Language studies make us smarter.
Language learning is splendid brain food. Bilingual students develop better memorization and recall skills. They also manage all language-related skills better than those who have only a single language. Most notably, they get a boost in problem solving. Like athletes in training, they become more mentally flexible to handle a broader range of intellectual tasks and problems. Language studies will even boost literary creativity and broaden interests in things like history, travel, fine arts, and more. Becoming bilingual equips the brain to do more.2
Exposure to a new language almost always sparks a shift of focus from one’s self to others and beyond. New students constantly ask me why Latin works this way or that. What they really want to know is why the foreign language doesn’t work just like English. Soon they realize that new ways are equal to or even superior to how they express themselves. The quality and texture of their communication expands. They come to understand that, while other people and cultures express themselves differently, we all share common fears and interests. This is the first step in moving out of the center of the universe and into the community of the human race. Learning a new language allows your child to gradually expand his capacity to see through the eyes of others.
Choosing a Language
Now that (I hope) you are persuaded that foreign language is a practical study for every type of student, it’s time to pick one. Most of us assume the choices are relatively small, but Stephen Anderson of the Linguistic Society of America tells us that there are actually 6,909 languages in our world.3 Most of us will comfortably choose from common options like Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi, and a half dozen more. Language choice is often left to fate or whim. Some home educators are forced to offer whichever language curriculum is easy and affordable. Others leave the choice to the student himself. The latter can have mixed results, especially if the student is deeply entrenched in Elfish, runes, or Klingon at the moment. Research a variety of languages; ask around to get a feel for alternative resources, and try a few on for size.
When choosing a language, keep a few considerations in mind. Any foreign language study is improved if there is a human educator is involved. Computer programs are getting more sophisticated by the day, but you can’t remove human involvement entirely if you want good results. Only a human can help correct nuances in pronunciation and grammar mishaps while explaining tricky concepts in a novel way. If you aren’t personally skilled in a foreign language, it’s not hard to find other options. Tutors, online programs, community colleges, and relatives can help add the human element. Get creative about expanding exposure to the new language. Attend local festivals and museums; find foreign films, and search for popular books written in the target language. The Bible, for example, has been translated into over 2,500 languages.
The High School Years
Linguists who study the benefits of language acquisition understand there is a certain threshold that a student must cross before he or she starts to experience the major benefits of being bilingual. At the high school level your student should run toward that threshold as quickly as possible. It is time to leave behind the fun and breezy approaches at this point. Your child’s first language was quickly mastered through immersion, so surround him with opportunities and support to work with that language intensely. Employ the most challenging approach you can afford. The human mind is uniquely wired for language, and there’s no law that the basics of a language must take two full years. A language-ravenous gifted learner may do well to pick up two or three languages during the high school years. Overlapping languages cause no adverse effects. Each new language will make the next one that much easier.
Plan ahead, and set your sites on a trip abroad. Not only is a trip a wonderful enticement to your student in the thick of the learning struggle, it is also a marvelous reward for you both. Travel might propel a student’s interest in the same language into college and beyond, perhaps even into his or her career or missions. For those who appreciate a good BOGO, success in a third or fourth year of the same high school level language may be enough to fulfill his college language requirements while still working at the high school level.
Languages open doors. They boost the intellect, and polish skills in verbal expression, problem solving, reason, and memory. Language study is even a shot in the arm for math, music, creativity, and more. Students who go on to experience the culture and history of their second language begin to see life through the eyes of others. The value of studying a foreign language is far greater than merely the attainment of a new language.
- Sheridan, R. “Augmenting Reading Skills through Language Learning Transfer” FLES Latin program Evaluation Reports, 1973-74, 1974-75, 1975-76 (1976).
- K. Oller and R. E. Eilers, eds., Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children, (2002) 281ff.
- http://www . linguisticsociety . org/content/how-many-languages-are-there-world.
Copyright 2016, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the Author. Originally appeared in the Annual Print Book 2016 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.