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Why You Need a Foreign Language

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Why learn languages?

10 good reasons why you should be learning a foreign language



"I speak English, so I don't have to learn a foreign language...."

Everyone speaks English, right? Well, certainly not everyone speaks English. According to the CIA World Fact Book, only 5.6 % of the world's total population speaks English as a primary language. That number doubles when people who speak English as a second or third language are counted. By conservative estimates, that means that well over four-fifths of the world's population does not speak English.

It's true that English has become a global lingua franca over the past several decades. This fact, however, really should have little effect on your decision to learn a foreign language. The attitude that English alone is enough in fact creates self-imposed limitations. To remain monolingual is to stunt your educational development, to restrict your communication and thinking abilities, and to deny yourself the ability to fully appreciate and understand the world in which you live. Learning another language opens up new opportunities and gives you perspectives that you might never have encountered otherwise. Personal, professional, social, and economic considerations all point to the advantages of learning foreign languages. Still not convinced? Here are 10 very good reasons why you should be learning a foreign language:


1. To increase global understanding

"... [E]ffective communication and successful negotiations with a foreign partner--whether with a partner in peacekeeping, a strategic economic partner, a political adversary, or a non-English speaking contact in a critical law enforcement action --requires strong comprehension of the underlying cultural values and belief structures that are part of the life experience of the foreign partner." - Dr. Dan Davidson, President of the American Councils on International Education

"A different language is a different vision of life." - Federico Fellini, Italian film director

"No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive." - Mohandas K. Gandhi, Indian nationalist and spiritual leader

Learning another language gives the learner the ability to step inside the mind and context of that other culture. Without the ability to communicate and understand a culture on its own terms, true access to that culture is barred. Why is this important? In a world where nations and peoples are ever more dependent upon on another to supply goods and services, solve political disputes, and ensure international security, understanding other cultures is paramount. Lack of intercultural sensitivity can lead to mistrust and misunderstandings, to an inability to cooperate, negotiate, and compromise, and perhaps even to military confrontation. Intercultural understanding begins with individuals who have language abilities and who can thereby provide one's own nation or community with an insider's view into foreign cultures, who can understand foreign news sources, and give insights into other perspectives on international situations and current events. For survival in the global community, every nation needs such individuals. A person competent in other languages can bridge the gap between cultures, contribute to international diplomacy, promote national security and world peace, and successfully engage in international trade.

As globalization and mobility and communications are bring the world ever closer together, ever more urgent is the need for global citizens to be competent in other languages. The United States is the only industrialized country that routinely graduates students from high school who lack knowledge of a foreign language. Whereas 52.7% of Europeans are fluent in both their native tongue and at least one other language, only 9.3% of Americans are fluent in both their native tongue and another language. This statistic does not bode well for the future of America in a global society. The upward trend in language learning must accelerate if the U.S. is to continue to be a major participant on the international stage.

Book tip: Here is an additional resource that underscores just how critical it is for English speakers to be learning foreign languages:

Why You Need a Foreign Language and How to Learn One, by Edward Trimnell, 236 p. (2005)The author convincingly demonstrates why a knowledge of languages other than English is essential if native speakers of English are to compete successfully in the global marketplace, to understand others, and to protect themselves from emerging threats throughout the world. This is the newly revised and expanded version of the 2003 edition.
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