ERIC Identifier: ED276305 Publication Date: 1986-10-00
Author: Weatherford, H. Jarold Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Personal Benefits of Foreign Language Study. ERIC Digest.
For a long time Americans tended to think that knowing English was
sufficient for all their needs. As a result, Americans developed an image as the
people who cannot say even the most rudimentary phrase in any other language.
Fortunately, however, many business, political, and educational leaders are
belatedly realizing that the whole world does not speak English, and that even
many of those who have learned English as a second language prefer to converse,
to do business, and to negotiate in their native tongue.
Not long ago learning a foreign language was considered to be merely a part
of a liberal education or an intellectual exercise through the study of grammar
and literature. It was automatically assumed that anyone studying foreign
language as a major field was going to be either a teacher, an interpreter, or a
translator and had no other career options. There is still a need for people in
those professions. There is also a growing need for individuals who possess
advanced skills in foreign languages and are trained in various technical areas.
This is a result of increased activity in international business, the inflow of
large amounts of foreign capital to the Unitied States, increased
internationalization, and an expanded awareness of the need to conduct not only
business but also diplomatic relations in the language of the host country.
A second language is now becoming a vital part of the basic preparation for
an increasing number of careers. Even in those cases where the knowledge of a
second language does not help graduates obtain a first job, many report that
their foreign language skills often enhance their mobility and improve their
chances for promotion.
In addition to any technical skills that foreign language students choose to
develop, they also have further tangible advantages in the job market. In a
recent study that sought to ascertain which college courses had been most
valuable for people who were employed in the business world, graduates pointed
not only to career-oriented courses such as business management, but also to
people-oriented subjects like psychology, and to classes that had helped them to
develop communication skills. Foreign language students, whose courses focus
heavily on this aspect of learning, often possess outstanding communication
skills, both written and oral. Furthermore, recent trends in the job marketplace
indicate a revived recognition of the value of liberal arts training in general
in an employee's career preparation.
WHAT ABOUT FOREIGN LANGUAGE AND TRAVEL ABROAD?
It is a very common and growing desire of Americans, perhaps especially among
young people, to travel abroad. Only a generation or two ago people rarely
ventured beyond their home states, but now, as the planet shrinks at an
unprecedented pace, large numbers of people travel to other North and South
American countries, to Europe, and even to Asia and Africa with increasing
frequency for both work and pleasure.
Certainly it is possible to travel in foreign lands without knowing the
language. In fact, as much as our generation travels, for many it would be
impossible to learn the language spoken in every country that they might visit.
Nevertheless, the traveler who knows the language of the country not only has an
easier time solving everyday problems associated with travel, but also has a
more pleasant experience and greater understanding both of the people of the
foreign country and of their culture. Therefore, every language Americans master
will enhance their enjoyment and reduce their frustration and isolation as they
travel around the world.
HOW CAN FOREIGN LANGUAGE STUDY HELP IMPROVE CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING AND MUTUAL
As the globe has shrunk, international business opportunities have multiplied
and travel has grown apace. Mutual understanding and meaningful communication
between nations, which have always been difficult to achieve, have now gained
increased urgency. As a result, significant numbers of people in the United
States have begun to call for better international understanding, and many of
them have been urging more foreign language study as an important means to
attaining this goal. Such exhortations are eminently well-founded, because the
study of another language provides the most effective tool for penetrating the
barrier of a single language and a single culture. Furthermore, experience with
another culture enables people to achieve a significantly more profound
understanding of their own.
Knowledge of a foreign language is not guaranteed to create empathy with and
understanding for the native speakers of the language. However, the development
of these qualities in individuals with a desire to understand and empathize is
greatly facilitated by language study. Furthermore, foreign language study tends
to help dissolve misconceptions and often helps to create feelings of sympathy
for native speakers of the language, especially if the study is begun early and
pursued for a long period of time.
DOES FOREIGN LANGUAGE STUDY HELP TO DEVELOP MENTAL ABILITY OR IMPROVE GRADES?
There was a time in the United States when learning a foreign language was
regarded primarily as a mental discipline for developing intellectual capacity.
Even though it is now clear that language learning has numerous applications of
both a practical and a humanistic nature, researchers as well as language
educators still recognize that spin-off benefits accrue from foreign language
study for other academic areas. For example, as Eugene Saviano stated, "The
person who has never comprehended, spoken, read or written a language other than
his mother tongue has little or no perspective on his own language,...he has
never penetrated the rich areas of learning and experience lying beyond
Novelist John Updike attributes the deterioration of writing skills in
America to two generations growing up without Latin: "In some curious way, the
study of this dead and intricate language enabled writers to write a beautiful,
clear idiomatic English." It may be that these benefits are not to be gained
only from Latin. As Vermont Royster said, "What is involved is a process in
which the study of a different language gives a person an understanding of the
nature of language itself, a sense of structure that is difficult to acquire
from studying one's own familiar language. Any new language forces us to think
why...we need to do what we do to express ourselves clearly."
For many decades researchers have attempted to reinforce with empirical
evidence the intuitive sense of the value of foreign language study in improving
the cognitive functioning of the brain, and many research projects have lent
credence to these ideas, particularly that foreign language study enhances a
student's achievements in English. For example, one researcher found that
students who had taken a foreign language in high school had a significantly
higher grade point average in all high school subjects as well as in freshman
English courses in college. In addition, data from the Admission Testing Program
of the College Board show a definite positive correlation between Scholastic
Aptitude Test (SAT) scores and the study of foreign languages. In one recent
test group, for example, students who had taken no foreign language in high
school achieved a mean score of 366 on the verbal portion of the SAT, and 409 on
the math portion. Students who had taken only one year of a foreign language had
slightly higher scores (378 and 416), whereas students with two years of foreign
language showed more dramatic increases (417 and 463). Each additional year of
language study brought a further rise in scores, with students who had studied a
language for five years or more achieving an average of 504 on the verbal and
535 on the math portion of the exam.
The College Board also calculated correlations between length of study of
certain subjects, including English, math, biological sciences, physical
sciences, and social studies, and SAT scores, and found that in almost all cases
the longer a student studied one of these subjects, the higher were the scores.
However, the verbal scores of students who had taken four or five years of a
foreign laguage were higher than verbal scores of students who had studied any
other subject for an equal length of time. Similar results have been obtained by
other researchers who have examined foreign language study and SAT scores.
A number of studies in bilingual education also seem to lead to the
conclusion that foreign language study can aid and even accelerate the cognitive
development of the brain. Bilingual subjects in various tests have outperformed
similar monolingual subjects on verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence. This
discovery has led some researchers to speculate that bilinguals may have a
language ability that enables them to achieve greater mental flexibility. Along
with the certainty that people who know more than one language and culture can
communicate more effectively with people of other countries and cultures, it is
indeed possible that through learning another language and culture, people
become more effective problem-solvers, closer to achieving solutions to pressing
social problems because of an increased awareness of a wider set of options.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cooper, C., Ed. RESEARCH WITHIN REACH. RESEARCH-GUIDED RESPONSES TO THE
CONCERNS OF FOREIGN LANGUAGE TEACHERS. Athens, GA: Agee Publishers, 1985.
Eddy, P.A. THE EFFECTS OF FOREIGN LANGUAGE STUDY IN HIGH SCHOOL ON VERBAL
ABILITY AS MEASURED BY THE SCHOLASTIC APTITUDE TEST--VERBAL. Washington, DC:
Center for Applied Linguistics, 1981. ED 196 312.
Fradd. "Bilingualism, Cognitive Growth, and Divergent Thinking Skills."
EDUCATIONAL FORUM 46 (1982):469-474.
Honig, J., and R. I. Brod. FOREIGN LANGUAGES AND CAREERS. New York: Modern
Language Association, 1973.
Sims, N. THE IMPORTANCE OF FOREIGN LANGUAGES FOR TODAY'S STUDENTS.
Unpublished manuscript, 1977. ED 152 089.
Timpe, E. F. "The Effect of Foreign Language Study on ACT Scores." ADFL
BULLETIN 11 (1979):10-11.
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