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A portal into other cultures

Americans need to increase their exposure to other languages

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It frustrates me that almost every American I talk to about language says “I learned [insert foreign language] in high school, but I forgot everything.”

English is one of the most influential languages in the world and is seen as a gateway to power and success. English is both economically and socially necessary. 

Because of this special status, the United States has gotten away with being mostly monolingual for so long. According to a 2013 YouGov survey, 75% of Americans only speak English. The U.S. Census estimates that about 80% of our population only speaks English at home. 

We are more powerful and speak a “superior” language. Other people can learn our language, so why should we learn theirs?

Everyone in America admires my trilingualism, but it's normal for many states in India to speak three languages (their mother tongue, Hindi, and English). We need to promote speaking multiple languages in the United States.

Bilingualism needs to be a priority for the American public. Enforcing a language in our education system will not change society’s mindset, but exposure could influence individual mentalities. 

Passionate Italian lecturer Sabrina Tatta is an Italian native who sees many positives in bilingual learning. 

“[Languages] help us embrace diversity instead of running away from it,” Tatta said. “[It] helps us see the ways we are similar to people who seem different from us because of their language or religion or country of origin.”

Recent graduate Katie Mills found excitement in learning about Arab culture through Arabic classes since she grew up in a small town with little cultural diversity. 

“I had a friend who was Arab, and he would talk about fearful looks he would get in public, or how it was rare for someone to sit next to him on the bus,” Mills said. “I thought that if more people took time to educate themselves about the culture there would be less fear, because it is a beautiful culture and it deserves more appreciation.”

Tatta commented that one’s “tolerance for ambivalence” increases with new languages. This means that one will be more open to new experiences, like leaving one’s home country or moving to a new position at work, and more open to contradictions. 

Early on in language learning, students come to terms with understanding the gist of conversations in a foreign tongue instead of knowing the definition of every word. 

To me, this means that language students have to let go of having full control of their lives. In turn, language learning lends itself to fostering confidence. 

Studying foreign languages also gives applicable classroom to career skills, such as improved communication and pattern recognition.  

“Higher tolerance to ambivalence is a characteristic that lends itself well in the workplace,” Tatta said. “You’re more easily self-directed, can make decisions without needing as much guidance or feedback.”

We are living in a globalized world. Not only are we surrounded by hundreds of languages in the workplace, but we encounter more when we travel for fun.

That being said, students need to conjure the desire out of themselves to learn languages in college.

Enforcing the requirement will never make good language learners because it will not influence their motives. Throughout high school, most of my peers half-assed their Spanish classes. They were there because it was a requirement and because they didn’t care, they didn't learn as much as possible.

I observed a similar trend in my college Arabic course. There were some students that were just there to fulfill a requirement, and they did not put in the emotional investment needed to absorb a different tongue.

America needs to change its mindset on languages and how valuable they are. My Arabic class was composed of students curious about language, culture, and faith, and it was amazing to see so many inspired students together. 

This language value needs to be instilled in students at a young age.

Psychology graduate student Margarita Zeitlin laid out immersion schools and changing the one-size-fits-all teaching styles as suggestions for early language learning. In addition, more money and research needs to go into currently unsuccessful youth language education. 

If children are introduced to language earlier, these values will better carry throughout one’s educational life.

The UW admissions currently requires two high school years, equal to two college quarters, of a foreign language for all applicants. Each college at the UW also has its own general education requirement. Many colleges have no language requirement, while others require three quarters of beginner level language.

Until about a decade ago, it was difficult to fulfill the college requirement with high school credits, Tatta explained. The highest placement could be into the third class of a beginner language series. Today, the requirement only necessitates three years of high school language. According to Tatta, this may have something to do with the economic recession and the UW wanting students to graduate on time. 

Tatta remembers that the language requirement used to be a gateway to language majors. Some students begrudgingly took the necessary courses but liked the subject so much, they decided to take on the major. 

Without the gateway classes, there are not enough students in upper division language classes, which means that the likelihood of these courses being offered diminishes, which has happened with Italian classes.

“[Students] might come to it because it’s a required course but if and when they start to like the subject, if the motivation to learn becomes the desire to communicate more proficiently, study 

or work abroad, or anything other than checking a requirement, the end result can be incredible,” Tatta wrote. 

Unfortunately, the current situation does not reflect the ideal world I imagine, in which students will desire to learn languages on their own. 

“[Students] don’t know what they don’t know,” Tatta said. “They don’t know what opportunities and benefits language study will bring them. They don’t necessarily realize the degree to which the classroom to career skills of a language major are transferable and valuable.” 

I love languages more than anything in the world, and I want everyone else to experience that same joy. Students should understand how useful and valuable languages are in this world. College is all about opening yourself to new worlds, and language is an ideal portal to this. 

Reach writer Tiasha Datta at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @TiashaDatta2

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