When I was a teenager heading into public high school, the guidance counselors sat me down with a group of classmates and explained all the requirements necessary for getting our diplomas. They also informed us of elective classes that would be helpful for our future. One of these electives was two years of a foreign language.
Why? Because that's what the colleges and universities wanted.
That's it – end of story. The colleges wanted it that way, and if wanted to earn a college degree we would fulfill the language requirement.
There was only one problem, many of us didn't bother with high school level foreign languages; we figured it could be put it off until our college years. Many students took a language and walked away with a diploma and that college requirement, but barely enough real life language skills to order a cup of tea or find the closest restroom. Only a few actually took the time to truly learn a language – and some of those individuals didn't even have a choice in what they studied.
If only those guidance counselors had sat us down and explained the real benefits of language-learning. We would have been chomping at the bit and banging on the doors of the language classrooms, if we had realized that by learning a new language we would:
- Broaden our options for employment
- Make ourselves more marketable in our chosen professions
- Better serve our local community through volunteer and paid positions
- Become citizens more capable of serving our country at large
- Have the potential to earn more money
- Reach across culture and language barriers to serve citizens of other countries
- Better represent our country to other world citizens
- Be better prepared to travel safely throughout the world
While some individuals may find the money more rewarding than the community service, and vice versa, these benefits are still more exciting. Consider the angle of choosing to delve into years of cultural experience and in-depth learning of a language, as opposed to feeling like you have been forced to learn.
What would happen if that guidance counselor sat each of us down and asked, "What do you plan to do with your life?"
What would you or your child answer? Perhaps you'd say, "I'm going to become a doctor, or a nurse!" Perhaps the answer will be that they are considering a career in law enforcement or the military after graduation. Would it influence you to know that individuals fluent in certain languages are offered signing bonuses for entering certain jobs in the military, as well as extra monthly pay for maintaining language proficiency levels? Or that doctors and nurses in emergency rooms don't always have time to wait for a translator? Imagine how you'd feel after you comforted the family of a child with a scary fever or taken the statement of a crime witness who was a tourist in our land in their native language.
Emergency rooms, military service and police work not quite up your alley? What about being a translator for a legal service that assists new immigrants to our country in their efforts to become citizens? How about being a midwife who is able to serve a special community of mothers because of your ability to speak with them in their preferred language during exams and birth? If traveling the skies is your dream, it sure would be nice to know what languages would assist you in becoming a highly sought-after flight attendant for a major airline that would get you up in the air and around the world.
I never took that high school language class myself, but you can be sure my children and I reach out whenever we hear an interesting accent near us. We've picked up a smattering of Japanese, German, Thai, Korean, Tagalog and even American Sign Language by understanding the true importance of learning other languages. Isn't it more palatable to think about language-learning that doesn't revolve around college requirements? That is the real value of learning a foreign language, when you get to see a new friend smile as they share the beauty of their native language with you!
Melonie Kennedy is a military wife and mother of two. Her work has appeared in multiple magazines, books, and e-books, as well as multiple blogs. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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