January 5th, 2012
08:15 AM ET

My View: Why language study should be part of your college experience

Courtesy Linda A. Cicero, Stanford News Serviceby Russell Berman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Russell A. Berman is the 2011 President of the Modern Language Association and professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University.

At college, students face a dizzying array of possible subjects to study. Suddenly you have the freedom to decide on your classes. The range of topics can be exhilarating, but with the freedom of choice quickly comes the need to make selections. Where do you want to focus? What electives do you want to explore? What skills do you want to build during your college years? It is important to plan your college learning thoughtfully by setting some goals and pursuing them consistently.

One of the best choices you can make when planning your college years is the decision to learn a foreign language, whatever your major. Learning another language will open the door to another culture and enhance your career opportunities in the increasingly global economy. Having strong skills in another language may give you an edge when applying for a job. That unique ability will set you apart from other applicants and show a potential employer that you have demonstrated long-term discipline in acquiring specialized knowledge.

Studying a language will also build your overall language abilities—in English too—and strengthen your skills in interpretation and understanding. Learning the grammar of another language is an important way to get a better handle on grammar in general. Expanding your foreign language vocabulary helps you think about words and their meanings in complex ways. The new language deepens your capacity to communicate and to understand the challenges of all cross-cultural relations. As countries become every more interconnected, the ability to engage in cross-cultural communication will grow ever more important.

Knowledge of another language can pave the way for advanced study in a wide range of fields and give you a chance to build the kinds of expertise that someone without those language abilities would not be able to master. Interested in health care delivery? Spanish may be very useful when treating Spanish-speaking patients. Curious about African history? You better learn French to study the key sources.  Intrigued by European politics?  You could be following today's news in the German press. All in all, studying a foreign language strengthens your intellectual profile and will make you more competitive in whatever career you pursue.

Which language should you study? Any that you want. Some college students build on the language they started in high school: you've got a head start.  Other students begin a new language in college, perhaps one that was not even offered in their high school. The three most frequently studied languages in the U.S. are Spanish, French and German. The fourth is American Sign Language. Enrollments in other languages, such as Chinese (Mandarin) and Arabic, are growing rapidly, reflecting changing economic and political interests. Students who are heritage speakers—who are familiar with a language from their home environment—can opt to take classes in that language to turn their informal knowledge of the language into a skill they can use in a professional context. Do your parents speak another language because they immigrated from another country? You may want to learn that language to explore your family history.

Given the advantages of language study, it's no surprise that language classes are in high demand. The Modern Language Association tracks college course enrollments in a triennial survey and has found that enrollment in all of the top ten languages studied has been increasing. Because language learning takes place best in small settings, language classes generally have a good student-teacher ratio and allow for active learning for all participants. Learning a language with other students can build a community of friends with shared goals. In colleges and universities, language classes often provide a haven for intense, personal learning, a welcome alternative to large anonymous lectures. Studying a language is a smart choice.

The MLA’s interactive language map offers a look at the many different languages spoken in the U.S.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Russell Berman.


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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Reid

    "Interested in health care delivery? Spanish may be very useful when treating Spanish-speaking patients"

    We at Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy have heard from students and professionals alike that this is certainly true. Many of our students are interested in studying Mandarin, Spanish, and Arabic to gain supporting skills that will pair well with their medical aspirations. An excellent point by Mr. Berman that touches upon an important trend in US higher education.

    By coincidence, a recent blog post related to the use of language in medical school:

    January 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  2. Rudi

    Another great plus to the small class size: students get to know other students and their instructor. This is a big plus for students who are the first generation in their families to go to college. That big history or pre-med lecture won't teach an 18-year-old how to succeed in college, but the weekly homework, conversations, and classroom back-and-forth helps students a lot more than any technological fix. Speaking of technology: Half of online students drop out or fail the class–nearly all of the regular class students make a decent grade. So go to class and share a language with people who are really there!

    January 13, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  3. Terry Waltz

    It is indeed wonderful to encourage college students to take a language class to become fluent in a language, and to gain all the advantages that fluency will bring.

    However, it would be good to separate the ideas of learning the grammar of a language and gaining fluency in that language. Learning ABOUT a language is Linguistics. It's a wonderful discripline in and of itself, but it has little to do with gaining practical proficiency in a language. The overemphasis of what is really Linguistics in "language" courses is the primary reason why so few students at any level of education become fluent. A focus on comprehensible input and extensive reading is far more effective in making all students fluent and proficient, which is the ultimate goal of language study for most.

    January 12, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  4. Alex Wolfson

    I agree with Dr Berman about the many advantages of learning a foreign language and with Kelly in the comments above that waiting til High School or college is leaving it too late. In Europe kids start learning English before the age of ten and by the time they are 18 or 19 can converse fluently. I think in English speaking countries it is sometimes difficult to see a direct need to learn a language in day to day life, but if you take a short to medium term language immersion course in a foreign country it really helps the language come alive and can really motivate a student to continue with it and take it to a higher level. Also, this type of learning is much more intensive so you will feel like you have made progress. ESL lanuage studies abroad offers these language programs all over the World, you can get more information on http://www.esl.co.uk

    January 10, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Denise

      It is never too late to learn another language. Adults simply learn it differently. It can be done, and it can be done quite successfully when one is an adult.

      January 13, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  5. Charles

    You can never start to soon to learn additional languages, my children all grew up speaking three languages, all were excellent students, three masters in science and a MD. They all use the languages on a daily basis.

    January 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  6. Language Magazine

    Dr. Berman has eloquently articulated what all college counselors should be telling their students. The argument that most Americans never use their foreign language skills is ungrounded and short-sighted. We live in a changing world where students are studying abroad and Americans are crossing borders to do business more than ever. The demand for bilingual and polyglot talent will only grow.

    For more information about foreign language education, bilingual education, and language-related news, check out our monthly magazine at http://www.languagemagazine.com. In our January issue, Dr. Berman offers his thoughts on language related legislation to be considered in 2012.


    January 9, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  7. max

    most people will never use the second language they learn and those that do are likely to use it very infrequently. save the money. take a different class.

    January 9, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Christine

      Most people do not use it because they do not make an effort to maintain their skills in the language. That cannot be blamed on the course itself.

      Also, it is not just about the "use" of the language but the experience of being foreign, and learning about other cultures. Berman addresses this in his essay.

      January 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Monica

      Even if people end up not using the language they learned, the experience of learning it is enriching in itself. There are many things that you learn in life (like trigonometry) that you end up not "using", in a practical sense, but learning them develops your brain and expands your universe. That said, if people end up not using and forgetting a language they learned, it's because they choose not to. It's quite easy to find opportunities to use another language, now more than ever, with the internet.

      January 13, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  8. blanca ortuno

    I am very interesting in get more inf. About rossetta sone. Like the phone number.

    January 8, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
  9. Kelly

    I agree that learning a second language is something that we should all do. I don't understand why we wait until High School or College to start it though. It is common knowledge that the younger you start learning a laungage the better. That is why I don't understand bilingual education in grade school. We teach non-english speakers in their native language, and teach them to speak it properly so that we can also teach them english. Think about that for a minute.. Our school district teaches my non-english speaking neighbor's child to be bilingual, while my child gets no such advantage. If a school district feels there is a need for bilingual education it should be for all, not just non-english speakers.

    January 7, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Language Magazine


      For news and several articles on bilingual and foreign language education, please check out our magazine at http://www.languagemagazine.com. There are foreign language options for native English speaking children, but there will be more as demand increases. If only all parents had your concern for their children's language skills. Our January issue has an article about the importance of teaching children in their mother tongues for the first 6 years while gradually adding a foreign language to ultimately improve their language skills in both their mother tongue and second language.

      January 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  10. Tracy at TELL ME MORE

    My comment is related to the statement: "Because language learning takes place best in small settings, language classes generally have a good student-teacher ratio and allow for active learning for all participants." I would add "beyond the classroom with the use of technology, such as advanced speech recognition for additional practice."

    January 6, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Terry Waltz

      Language **learning** does (aka "learning about languages"). Language acquisition does not require technology, specific group sizes or any of the bells and whistles. It just requires the student to be provided with language that he can understand. The brain does the rest, at any age. Language should not be lumped together with other "school subjects" that are a body of facts, rather than an innate human ability for which the desired outcome is automatic use and recognition, rather than analysis.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:13 pm |