When considering the appealing classes in the STEM fields and business majors that promise bountiful career opportunities, foreign language courses may not seem as appetizing. However, according to US News, “those entering the workforce in 2014 with second language fluency can expect an additional 10 to 15 percent pay increase.” Even with those obvious career benefits, only seven percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course. So, if your university offers you the opportunity to enhance and expand your communication skills, seize it.
Learning a language is all about discovering new perspectives, forming new connections, expanding world views and becoming a more culturally diverse individual. After all, only 25% of the world speaks English, and only about 18% of Americans speak a language other than English. That means if you want to communicate with even a small part of the world, you have to speak another language. “Being able to talk to people in their own language has many benefits,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Gudrun Buhnemann, a specialist in Sanskrit Language and Literature. “It allows for a more personal connection, shows a genuine interest in their culture and so on. It requires some extra effort, but it usually pays off. Learning a little is better [than not] learning at all.”
Looking around at your multi-lingual peers, you might feel behind in the world of languages, but it’s never too late. “I started studying Chinese formally my freshman year of college,” said Associate Professor Rania Huntington. Now, not only does she teach Chinese at UW-Madison, but she also acts as the Chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Of course, you don’t need the same dedication as Professor Huntington, but even if fluency isn’t your end goal, the process of learning a language is still an essential experience.
Some learn because they are curious. Some learn because their university or college requires it (let’s be real–that’s most people). But across the board, we all learn because we don’t want to feel helpless in society, not knowing how to respond to the people around us. Yet, in order to achieve this, we must first know what it means to be helpless. “Even in the first years of language X, by going through that instruction…you will experience [what] it is like to be a helpless being…to not be able to understand what is going on,” said UW-Madison professor Junko Mori, who teaches Japanese Language and Linguistics. “In the United States, there are many immigrants who do not speak English. But by learning a foreign language, then [the students] can see that perspective of the immigrants who are struggling to learn English. Even if you’re staying in this country [the United States], by putting yourself in that kind of environment, you will understand some of the other people in this society.”
A foreign language means a new skill, not to mention an impressive resume booster, but it provides you with so much more. Learning a language is an entirely foreign experience. If you don’t understand how to balance a chemical equation or how to structure your literature essay, at least you can ask the professor—in English. In a college foreign language course, sometimes there is little-to-no English spoken at all. So, how can you ask questions if you don’t even know how to ask them? The entire situation intimidates and frustrates students everywhere.
After all, you’re asking your professor—who is fluent in the language—a question in a language you can’t speak, so of course you’re worried you might sound stupid. Scratch that—you probably will sound stupid. But, you will only sound stupid to you. The process of becoming fluent is anything but easy and anyone who’s ever mastered another language—your professor included—knows that the only way to become accurate is to let go of the fear of being inaccurate. “As a human being, we have a fear of the unknown,” said associate professor Byung-Jin Lim, director of the Korean Language Program at the UW-Madison. “We have to overcome that anxiety first.” He understands a new language may intimidate students because of how much they don’t know, but he encourages them to speak freely in class without worrying about what he, as a professor, might think. “This might be new to you,” he tells them, “but that means new opportunities, or finding your potential through this. Isn’t that exciting?”
As the world shifts towards globalization, learning foreign languages has become an integral part of our existence in society. “You can’t live without encountering people from different countries nowadays, no matter where you are,” said Dr. Takako Nakakubo, who teaches Japanese at UW-Madison. “If you are fluent in a language, great! But even if [you’re] not, still learning a foreign language [will] definitely make you a better person.”
Like any subject, learning a language requires dedication and determination. But more than anything, it requires hunger. A hunger to know more—a desire to understand the self and the world. So, feast on the foreign language courses you have before you. And remember, stay hungry.