Student Essay: The Value of Foreign Languages
By Sophia Theis
Do languages have a value beyond their use for communicating with others?
Everyone knows that learning a foreign language is good for you. After all, you can talk to so many more people, read so many more books, listen to so much more music, and so on. But are these the only ways that learning a new language will improve you? Or is there a value in learning a foreign language outside of being able to understand the people who speak it? The short answer: yes.
The longer answer: learning a new language improves your problem-solving abilities, your patience, and your understanding of your own language. To illustrate, I will use the example of a native English speaker learning Latin (a dead language that they will never use for communication) to demonstrate some of the advantages of learning multiple languages, even if you cannot use them to understand more people.
Learning new languages increases your problem-solving skills because it teaches the brain to look at things from different angles. For example, when an English speaker is asked how old they are, they might reply, “I am nineteen years old.” But the Latin equivalent literally means, “I have been born for nineteen years.” Learning a new language forces you to understand multiple ways of saying or doing things, which improves your ability to find other methods of solving problems in other contexts. This is backed by a study performed in 2004, in which both monolingual and bilingual preschoolers were asked to sort blocks by color, and the bilingual children tended to perform better than their monolingual peers.
Learning new languages increases your persistence because it requires a lot of effort over time to learn a new language, which will not pay off immediately. Studies have shown that mastering languages closely related to English (such as Dutch, German, French, or Spanish) takes on average almost two years; the less similar the language is to English, the longer it takes. Anyone willing to commit to studying a language for months will soon learn the value of patience, especially if there are no living speakers to converse with.
Learning new languages also gives you a better understanding of your first language because, in order to understand how the new language works, you have to understand its grammar and syntax, which you can apply to better understand your own language. Someone who only speaks English might never question the way English uses word order to communicate meaning—that is, in the sentence “the girl sees the dog,” we know the girl is the one seeing and the dog is the one being seen because “girl” comes before the verb and “dog” comes after it. But someone who has student Latin will know that some languages communicate meaning using case markings: in the Latin translation of this example, puella canem videt, we know the girl is the one seeing because puella has the nominative ending –a, and that the dog is the one being seen because canem has the accusative ending –em, even though both words come before the verb. You can then apply that knowledge to your native language, and perhaps see ways English can change its normal word order without changing its meaning.
Learning new languages has many benefits, including some that are not connected to communicating directly with others. Learning new languages makes you a more creative thinker, teaches you not to be intimidated by tasks that take a lot of effort, and gives you insight into how your own language works.
Sophia Theis is a student at Parnassus Prep in Maple Grove, MN, and has taken classes in Latin, Spanish, and Ancient Greek. In addition to languages, she enjoys Quiz Bowl and swimming.