Thursday, March 22, 2012

In today's globalized, English dominated world, is it still important to learn a language other than English?

On January 29, 2012, the New York Times had several articles grouped under the headline, "English is Global, so why learn Arabic?"

The articles discussed the need for English speakers to learn other language sin the context of globalization. Someone asked for my opinion.

I can argue it both ways. For instance, I live in Shanghai, China. Despite having studied Chinese for years I really don't speak it all that much at any level above the basic one required for daily interactions in grocery stores and with taxi drivers and such. Too many people around me, Chinese and otherwise, speak English at a level that is higher than my Chinese. And even then, when my Chinese is better, there is still a constant struggle as many with low level English try to push me into using that language, instead of their own, so that they can practice using their English. Therefore those who say that it is not worth the considerable time and effort to learn other languages, particularly complex languages, in today's globalized, English-dominated world do have a point. However, I also believe learning a language, even a little bit of a language, other than English can be highly worthwhile.

Let me explain. First, I believe it is also best to define your goals in language learning. small;">
Some example goals could be "learn a smattering of everything so people like you and don't find you linguistically arrogant." In such a situation just learning to say "Hello" (or the basic greeting) can make people extraordinarily happy when you see them, particularly if they are part of an ostracized immigrant or refugee group. The pay off here is well worth the effort. Another example is that I definitely believe that an ESL or TESOL professional whose job is to inspire and assist others to learn languages should at least try to study a foreign language (or two or three.) Otherwise how can he or she really empathize or understand what the students are doing? I have little respect for TESOL people who consider language learning unnecessary for themselves but expect their students to do it. It's like having a fat guy who smokes and eats donuts for a football or wrestling coach. 

In fact, I think ideally a TESOL professional should try to study at least one non-Western language at some point just for the empathy and understanding it provides as this simulates the experience most of his or her students are probably having. I haven't yet mentioned the importance of intercultural communication. This should be obvious. Although those who argue that the need for those of us who speak English need other languages to communicate with foreign people is being reduced, it clearly still exists. Some argue that if you learn a foreign language you can integrate yourself into a foreign society and be accepted as one of them. Personally, I think the ability (or need) to integrate oneself into a foreign culture is rare for most of us and many cultures resist integration by outsiders. (I speak as a resident of China. Most Chinese do not treat a Caucasian or a Black as Chinese even when he speaks fluent Chinese.)

Having a reliable translator who you trust is important and this is a good reason why we should want people from our own culture to study other languages. We will always want people who can tell us what a foreign culture is saying or writing among themselves. (And, just for the record, historians sometimes go so far as to learn long dead languages simply to gain insight into long gone historical events and processes. 

So although, in today's world, you can get a surprising amount done today in English compared to long ago, there will always be several reasons a person should consider learning languages, especially if that person is a teacher of the English language. My opinion only.

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