Sophia Hsai knows first-hand the importance of learning a second language.
“I came to the United States when I was 14, and I did not speak a word of English,” said Hsai. “That prevented me from communicating with people. It’s hard to get to know the culture when you don’t know the language, because language and culture go hand-in-hand.”
Hsai, who has learned much English since that time, shares her love for her native language as a Mandarin Chinese teacher at Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer.
“It’s hard to bridge that connection with people outside your own culture if you don’t speak the language,” Hsai said. “Learning a language can bring you to a different point of view that you may not have had before.”
Educators agree the cultural aspect is one of several solid reasons for taking a foreign language during middle and high school years – in addition to the fact that it’s a New York state graduation requirement.
“When we study another language, it informs us about our own language,” said Suzanne Rayome, K-12 Director of World Language/ESL department and a French teacher at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District. “Language teachers look at key similarities and differences between our language and others.”
In addition, said Rayome, language study helps students build skills in other areas, such as math and music, and exposes them to cultures outside their own.
Research confirms that people who learn a second language are better problem-solvers and more creative. In addition, learning a second language enhances basic skills including English vocabulary, reading skills, cultural enrichment, creativity and communication skills. (Read some of the research at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
Language learners are exposed to more experiences as well, from being able to access movies, music and literature in another language to learning about another culture. Students who learn a language may be more open-minded, form new relationships and more easily navigate an interconnected world. In addition, knowing how other people think and what they value can reduce cultural misunderstandings.
“In a global world, we have the potential for constant contact with people from all different countries,” said Rayome. “There are ways of doing business, ways of acting, ways of speaking.”
Deciding which language to pursue in middle and high school can be a challenge – particularly when a district offers several choices. In some cases, the language a parent believes will be more “useful” down the road is not the one that intrigues a student.
So how does a student choose?
“Your child should be studying any foreign language, it doesn’t matter which one,” said Rayome. “The process a student is going through goes beyond the language itself. Students develop a deeper understanding of other cultures.”
Diana Pett, ESL/Spanish 1 teacher at Central Valley Academy in Ilion, agreed. “All other languages are worth studying,” she said.
If a child is interested in a language, they’re more inclined to be excited about learning it. Research also shows that there is a multiplier effect with language.
“When students study a second language, it creates a basis of thinking about language that makes the next language they study that much easier to learn,” said Rayome.
Pett suggested visiting language classrooms and talking to older students who are enrolled in available language classes. “Listen to music form the languages that are offered,” she suggested.
In Burnt Hills, sixth grade students experience a unit of each language the district currently offers, which helps them make a choice toward the end of the school year.
“It’s typically not a good idea to choose a language based on what your best friend is taking,” said Rayome. She suggested considering a child’s interest in a particular culture, as well as any previous language instruction. “If a sibling has studied a particular language, it can be a good way for a younger sibling to make a choice.”
And if you’re worried that your child’s language selection will have no use in the real world, fear not. The case can be made for any language, Rayome said.
Global Foundries, which has a microchip fabrication plant in Malta, is headquartered in Dresden, Germany, and German is the language of diplomacy, she said. “The largest trading partner in the U.S., particularly in New York, is Canada, and we’re constantly getting calls for people to translate French documents,” said Rayome.
A growing Hispanic population in the United State and the growth of China as a global economy mean each of those languages would be good choices as well.
“The bottom line is, students should be studying a language,” said Rayome.
Hsai said the biggest challenge for language learners is to accept that they will make mistakes.
“A language is something you will continue to learn. There’s no perfection,” said Hsai. It’s important to push through a fear of making mistakes, she said. “Challenge yourself to learn a new thing.”
Rayome said career opportunities abound for people who speak a second language. She recalled BH-BL graduates whose high school language study had been a catalyst in their decision to continue that or another language, and who have found their language skills made them more marketable in the real world.
“You never know where your language is going to take you, but it is definitely going to open doors that wouldn’t have been opened without it,” she said.