5 Reasons Why You Should Pay Attention in Your Foreign Language Class

Posted on 01. Sep, 2014 by in Language Learning

“I’m never going to use this language, why do I have to take this class?”

“Everyone speaks English, so why do I have to learn another language?”

As much as it saddens my language-loving heart to write such things, I see tweets from young students making claims like those above every single day. Most high schools in the United States require at least two years of language study, and rightly so. Yet many students refuse to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, writing it off as useless. So, American school students, I challenge you to think of your compulsory language class as an opportunity, rather than a burden.


Image by cleverCl@i®ê on Flickr.com

First, let’s dispel those comments above. Even though it may not be apparent to you right now, you never know when or how second language skills come in to play. Don’t limit yourself (or your future self) by snoozing through your language classes each day.

As far as “everyone speaks English”, let’s just derail that train of thought right now. There’s no exact figure on the number of proficient English speakers around the world, but I guarantee you it’s less than you’re picturing (especially if you take the above statement literally). According to the CIA World Fact Book, less than 5% of the world’s population speaks English as their primary language. Another 750 million people are believed to speak English to some level of competence, but if you combine those figures, that’s still less than 25% of the world who can hold a conversation in English.

Even if English isn’t quite as ubiquitous as it seems, why should young students care about other languages? Beyond the cognitive benefits and long-term health benefits of bilingualism, proficiency in a foreign language has many rewards that are more immediately relevant to today’s students.

So let’s explore a few reasons why you should actually pay attention in language class this semester:

  1. Improve your English skills. Wait, what? Wasn’t I just talking about learning a foreign language? Yup. But while we’re on the topic of English, did you know that studies have shown learning a foreign language actually improves reading scores in English? For you students facing the dreaded SATs and GREs in a few years, this is good news! In fact, reports show that SAT scores climb with each additional year of foreign language classes taken.
  2. Improve your chances of college (or graduate school) admissions: Most colleges and universities now require a minimum of two years of language study, with many of the more competitive institutions recommending even more. Whether you’re studying physics or international relations, admissions officers will expect you to have studied a second language, so even if your school somehow doesn’t require you to do so, it’s really in your best interest to sign up.
  3. Expand your study abroad options: Ah, study abroad! The highlight of oh so many college careers, including mine. But guess what? Everyone can’t study abroad in London or Sydney. In fact, you might find a fantastic study abroad program in your field of interest, but it may be conducted in a foreign language. I personally studied international development through a program in Niger, where French language skills were a pre-requisite. You could find yourself studying biology in German or ecology in Spanish, or… you could not. Studying a language in school opens up a world of new opportunities to you, study abroad programs being just one of them.
  4. Open up career opportunities. Speaking of opening up new opportunities, what about career opportunities? This may seem too far off for you high schoolers (and perhaps coming up too quickly for you college seniors!), but language skills have become a highly desirable skill in today’s job market. And I’m not just talking about translators, international businessmen, or diplomats. Language skills come in the play in a variety of positions, ranging from nursing and law enforcement to marketing and journalism. Not sure what you want to do yet? Don’t limit your future opportunities by skipping out on those language credits.
  5. Gain a global perspective. If you’re about the head off to college in a few years, especially far from home or in a big city, you’ll find yourself facing people whose backgrounds and beliefs vary significantly from your own. Studying a language exposes you to another culture, and another way of thinking. It gives you the opportunity to see situations from an outsider’s perspective. This kind of exposure will help you make the transition from high school to college.

So when you take your seat in Spanish, French, or whichever language you may have in your course schedule, sit up, open your ears, and soak it all in! It’s not just another pile of homework, it’s an opportunity to learn a new skill while improving other basic skills like reading, and it’s a doorway to future opportunities that you can’t even imagine right now. As a young student, the world is your proverbial oyster, but if you float by thinking everyone speaks English (or should learn it), you’re imposing a number of limits on yourself, personally, professionally, socially, economically, and beyond.

Flawless, Impossible Fluency

Posted on 27. Aug, 2014 by in Language Learning, Uncategorized

Itchy Feet: Saving Face


Germans have this funny habit of downplaying how good their English is. I feel pretty confident in saying that, aside from perhaps the Scandinavians and the Dutch, Germans speak the best English in mainland Europe. And yet every time I ask a German stranger if they speak English, they either fidget and shuffle their feet and say “hmm, a little bit,” or they just say “no.” A little more conversation reveals that they’re pretty much fluent in English (of course, if I start in German and make a mistake—they immediately switch to English! Figure that one out).

Admittedly, I’m not all that different. I downplay my skill in adopted languages as humbly as any German. My dad has started introducing me to people by saying, “this is my son, he speaks perfect German,” over my embarrassed protests. Many of us language learners are shy about our language ability, and I think I’ve figured out why: we don’t actually know what “fluent” means.

To be “fluent” in a new tongue is the holy grail of language learning. We want to be able to speak and understand perfectly. The trouble is, unless you’ve already climbed the language ladder once before, you don’t have any point of reference aside from your mother language. And let’s face it—to be so good at a foreign language that it is as good as your mother language is a bit of a stretch. Your language goals are somewhere up in the clouds, intangible and mysterious. You’re reaching too far. “Fluent” does not mean “perfect,” but that’s what you think it means.

So because to you “fluent” means “mother language-level,” you’re easily disappointed. You don’t know what your language level is exactly, but you know it’s not fluent, because it doesn’t come out as naturally as your native tongue. You must still be trudging along the gravelly road, the destination still shimmering impossibly far in the distance. Of course you’re shy when someone asks you if you “speak” that language, you have no idea!

Literally defined, “fluent” means graceful, easy, flowing like a liquid. It doesn’t mean impeccable, it doesn’t mean flawless. It doesn’t mean perfect. What it means for your language ability is up to you to decide.

When I decided I didn’t want to live in Berlin forever, but I wanted my German to be better than it is, I realized I had to set a very specific goal for my language learning, or I’d never think it was good enough, and I’d never leave. I decided I don’t care much about prepositions, articles, or adjective endings—you can be perfectly well-understood in German without using them perfectly, and anyway, even Germans routinely screw them up. Rather, I want to be able to speak without thinking too much about what I’m saying. Specifically, I want to be able to use all the verb tenses (future perfect, past perfect, pluperfect) and moods (past and present subjunctive II) without sitting there for ten minutes running conjugation charts in my head. I can talk about what had happened, what will have happened, and what would, should, and could have happened. At that point, I will be able to speak German fluently, by my own definition. I’ll be able to fully communicate. The rest is just new vocab words.

Now that I have defined my goal, I’m able to own my language level. “Do you speak German?” someone will ask. “Yes,” I’ll say. It’s true; I do speak it. But just as “fluent” does not mean “perfect,” “speaking” a language does not mean “fluent” in that language.

You have to decide for yourself what “fluent” means.

What about you? How do you define “fluent”? Have you reached that fluency in a language? Does that help you meter goals for other languages you’re learning?

Confessions of a Native English Speaker

Posted on 25. Aug, 2014 by in Language Learning, Reference/Usage Tips

Image by Eustaquio Santimano on Flickr

Image by Eustaquio Santimano on Flickr

In my last post, I interviewed my wife Natalya. Natalya shared her language learning experiences as a Ukrainian native who left her country to settle in the United States.

Today, I’d like to share with you the same kind of interview I conducted with my mother. My mom, born and raised in California, moved to France with my father, a French native, in 1988. She relates her experiences and the challenges she faced as an expatriate living in a foreign country. This is her story…

How much French did you know when you first arrived in France?

I had taken a night course in conversational French at a local junior college.  My husband is French and his mother came to the U.S. every year for a one-month period.  She spoke no English at all so this forced me to use the little French that I knew.  I understood quite a bit but only spoke in the present tense and only used the informal (familiar) form.

How did you learn to speak French?

We moved to France in 1988 and upon my arrival I went to the University of Grenoble for six months to learn French with foreign students.  Thankfully I already had the basics of the French language because my husband is French and his mother came to visit often.

How long did it take you to become fluent in French?

I would not consider myself fluent because I still make mistakes in French.  But it helped tremendously that my husband is French so he could correct my errors.  I also checked out children’s books from the library.  That helped a lot in seeing how words were spelled that I had heard spoken.  

What did you find most challenging about learning French?

The conjugation of verbs, masculine and feminine forms and plural endings.  Also, the pronunciation was difficult since there are so many letters that are silent.    

Do you feel you still struggle with French?

No, I feel quite comfortable in the language.  If I don’t know how to construct a sentence in French one way, then I find another way to do it. 

Do you think in your native language or in French?

I think in my native language.  Though when visiting France I often think of a sentence in English and then translate it into French in my mind before speaking.  But after being in the country for a while French comes naturally (though I don’t think in French).  

What advice would you give someone who, like you, came to France from a foreign country without knowing how to speak French?

Learn the language as quickly as possible and as well as possible.  The French are not very tolerant of foreigners who speak French incorrectly (though they love the American accent).

What were some of your experiences learning a new language in a foreign country? Share your comments below!