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But, Everyone Speaks English!

August 6, 2015

As language educators, we often find ourselves in the position of defending our profession. For most of us, the following phrase is like fingernails across a chalkboard: “Everyone speaks English, so why do I have to learn [insert language here]?”

First, it is simply not true. Native speakers of English make up only about five percent of the world’s population. The total number of people who speak English as a first or second language is a mere 11.8 percent. Clearly, not everyone speaks English.

What rankles me even more is the assumption that the only reason one might need to learn a second (or third) language is to conduct some personal business.

Why should everyone learn a language? It makes you more employable; it makes you smarter; it exercises your brain; it creates more enriching travel opportunities; it helps you understand others and, perhaps more importantly, it helps you understand yourself.

Some people question language learning, but even more, people question which languages are worth learning.

I am a German teacher, and so of course, I have tons of reasons why someone might want to learn German. Aside from being a world leader in science, technology and engineering, Germany is the second largest exporter in the world with the largest economy in Europe and the fourth largest economy worldwide. If you love soccer, music (from classical to metal), cars and gummy bears, German is for you!

However, I also have tons of reasons why someone should learn Latin, Chinese, French, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Greek…. Well, you get the idea.

Chinese teacher, Chen Zhu, says, “Mandarin (a part of the Chinese language family) has 848 million speakers, making it the language with the largest number of native speakers.”

French teacher, Stephanie Segretto offers, “French is spoken on every continent and by an estimated 220-300 million people worldwide. It is still the second language used for communication by the United Nations and at Olympic events.”

Spanish teacher, Leea Glasheen, shares this: “Approximately 13 percent of the people in the United States speak Spanish as a first language. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world.”

Trish LeDoux Yoshida, Japanese teacher, explains why her students love learning Japanese: “The traditional arts of geisha, sumo, sushi and flower-arranging or more ‘pop’ culture elements such as anime, manga and music. Knowledge of the language enables students to understand the culture in a way that is deeper and more meaningful than would be possible without that linguistic perspective.”

Leaving the oldest language for the last perspective, Latin teacher, David Fisher shares: “Latin is the gateway to the Romance languages and a means of better understanding English. The language, culture and customs of ancient Rome help us better understand and appraise today's modern world in innumerable ways.”

These are all valid reasons for learning any one (or all!) of these languages. Most people working in business, travel or government would readily acknowledge an advantage to knowing more than just English. But what about the average American who never leaves the U.S.? Why should he learn a world language?

Studies have repeatedly shown that the numbers of years students spend learning world languages are directly related to statistically higher scores on ACT and SAT verbal scores. When you have to decode and interpret a new language, it immediately makes you more aware of how we express ideas in English. “We have strong evidence today that studying a foreign language has a ripple effect, helping to improve student performance in other subjects.” —Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe summed it up well with, “Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.” (“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”)

Data Source: Ethnologue.com

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Susan Lafky
Susan Lafky, Middlebury Interactive’s lead German teacher, has been teaching world languages for parts of four decades, mostly in the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. At Fairfax, she also served as the Chair of the Foreign Language Department. Susan joined Middlebury Interactive full-time three years ago after health reasons made it impossible for her to continue at her classroom position. In our blog, she shares her thoughts on digital education, her students and the differences between teaching in the digital and brick-and-mortar classrooms.
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