Why learn a foreign language?
In most of the world outside the U.S., an average economically affluent citizen will be fluent in two or three languages. Yes, you say, people in other countries may need to know English or German in order to survive in today’s business world. Because you do know how to speak and write in English, you don't think you have this problem. By speaking only English, you may not have an actual problem, but you will be at a disadvantage.
Being reasonably fluent in a language other than English opens many doors. It offers you access to information in other languages: archives, news, literature, as well as personal contacts. These are important, no matter what field you’re headed into. Being able to speak and write in a language other than English offers flexibility — not only because you will be a more valuable asset to your company, but also in terms of your own personal development. Speaking in another language allows you to think differently and approach problems with a different frame of mind; this lateral thinking helps keep you on your toes.
Seeing above the heads of fellow colleagues who have only been exposed to one way of life may allow you see what they do not see and to predict a problem before it actually happens. One major setback to American businesspeople in the modern world of global competition is precisely the lack of a “larger view” — a world view with the ability to put oneself in the position of a German, for example, and to be able to reason as a German would. By learning a foreign language, you acquire not only the ability to communicate, but in the process of learning, you also absorb many elements of the other culture’s mentality, values and ways of reasoning. This, in a world that very often seems to make no sense to most people, can be priceless in itself.
If you do decide to “think differently” and dedicate the time and energy to learning another language, do not feel discouraged if you have an accent or do not understand every word that is spoken to you. The important thing is to try to speak the bit you do know as clearly and correctly as possible. (Do not keep silent the entire time because you are afraid of making a mistake!) When an international guest makes an honest attempt at speaking the native language of the place she or he is visiting, it comes through as a sign of deference that will flatter even the citizens of Paris, changing the typical “haughty-Frenchman-stereotype” 180 degrees.
But one can also venture beyond the popular Spanish and French. For example, why not dedicate your time to learning Arabic, Russian, Portuguese or Chinese — all four of which are among the most spoken languages in the world —while you are here at Notre Dame? Other language courses offered at Notre Dame include Italian, Irish, German and Japanese — all of which could come in handy. Even Ancient Greek or Latin, also offered at Notre Dame, open the doors to a wealth of literature and written history.
If you are learning a foreign language and would like to practice it more often, there are many clubs on campus which gather weekly or bi-weekly to chat. Ask your professor or the respective language department for information about clubs nearest your interests. There are also numerous abroad opportunities for the open-minded. The cost of a semester abroad is usually the same as a semester at Notre Dame, but the experience is incomparable. Such an experience will enhance the following semesters you do spend on campus in ways which you cannot imagine, allowing you to see and take advantage of opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t have known existed.
So if you are confronting your foreign language requirement as if it were a prison sentence, as a friend and colleague, I advise you to look at it as an opportunity which you cannot afford to let go to waste. It is much more difficult to find the time to learn a foreign language after college. If you’re in doubt about how to fill that undecided class, why not dedicate it to a language? You will get as much out of it as you put into it, as it is with most things in life.
I guarantee it.
August 25, 1999
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, August 4, 1999