Is Learning a Foreign Language Necessary?

Like many of you, I had long heard and read that children find it very easy to pick up foreign languages. In my own family, I had the example of my father – he was raised in an all-German speaking home, but when he went to school at the age of 6, he picked up English quickly and easily. I kind of assumed that most kids would be able to do this.

Then, I started teaching. At each of the schools I taught at, there were children who were from various foreign countries. Many of them did not speak English at home, but they were all in English-speaking schools, and, I assume, watched at least some television in English and probably had other day-to-day exposure to the English language. Most of them could not speak very much English at preschool or kindergarten age, and continued to struggle on through the elementary years. Some of these kids had been in English-speaking daycare since infancy, and yet still struggled. I was really astonished!

I realized that it isn’t a “given” that someone will speak another language fluently, even when immersed in it from birth. Much can depend on the child’s natural ability, as well as the difference between the native language and the second one (phonetic sounds, for instance, that are present in one of the languages but not the other).

Some people seem to have a natural facility for languages, and learn several without a problem, but that is not the case for most people. Most people struggle to memorize some nouns and verbs, and never string together sentences easily and quickly. I believe this is true even when language instruction is begun at a young age.

I personally fall into the “no facility with foreign languages” camp, and despite the fact that my dad taught us many German words as young children, I didn’t find German class in high school or college to be very helpful. Frankly, I considered much of it to be a big waste of my time.

A few years ago, columnist and author Marilyn vos Savant (who has the highest recorded IQ in the world) was asked about the value of foreign language study. Her answer was that it wasn’t very valuable; it would be a much better use of time if people studied their own languages more, increasing their vocabularies and writing abilities.

Needless to say, she received much flak for this answer. Many people disagreed with her, and felt that foreign language study was very important. They cited studies that show that children who study foreign languages do better on standardized tests (in their own language), and show better cognitive and problem solving abilities.

Other people mentioned that many occupations require a second language, or that children may need to learn the language of their heritage to communicate with members of their family.

I sort of agree with Marilyn, but with the caveat that her advice applies mostly to English-speaking people. People in other countries will most probably learn English as their second language, and it is definitely in their best interests to do so. That means that English speakers will always find it easier to navigate in a foreign country than the other way around.

I’ve got mixed feelings about foreign language study. I can see its value for increasing vocabulary and understanding of grammar and writing. I can see how many industries need people who are fluent in more than one language. I can see how family ties make it important to know more than one language. I just personally never benefited from my study of German. If my teachers had approached it as simply a way to learn about words, rather than trying to make German speakers out of us, I might have enjoyed it more.

For me, its real value would have been an academic one, not a practical one. Practically speaking, it didn’t benefit me at all. Obviously I studied other things that I don’t find myself needing on a day-to-day basis, but most of them were a lot more enjoyable than German class! I’m not against foreign language study completely, but I don’t put quite the emphasis on it that other people might.