Learning a foreign language

Why you should learn a foreign language and not get lost in translation

WRITTEN BY: Editorial Staff
Learning a foreign language

People always ask me why I double minored in French and German in college. The answer is obvious: I always had an interest in languages, and everyone studied Spanish, so I wanted to be original.

It’s not just me. When studying in Vienna, Austria, Zachary Grotovsky, 22, already a German major at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, met and dated a Polish girl. Wanting to communicate with her better, he started learning Polish. 

“Needless to say, I am not with that girlfriend anymore,” he said.

Although the relationship ended, since returning to the US, in addition to German, he has taken three semesters of Polish courses and plans to continue taking the language until he achieves fluency.

Like me, Grotovsky realized that the benefits of studying even just one foreign language are immense. Whether we like it or not, globalization will probably force us to communicate internationally at least once in our lifetime, personally or in our careers.

People can’t simply count on all the world to speak English in order to succeed in business, and people need to communicate with those offering goods and services internationally, according to Duane Sider, director of learning at Rosetta Stone, a global language-learning software company.

“It will be those learning now in high school, in college, who will become corporate executives or managers, educators, entrepreneurs, who will be more adept at what they are doing and be able to communicate internationally,” Sider said.

Rosetta Stone conducted a survey in September with Wakefield Research, showing that 84 percent of Americans say that they are impressed with someone who speaks more than one foreign language fluently.

According to Sider, Spanish is the most popular language studied using the Rosetta Stone software. Classic European languages like French and German are also popular, and other languages are rising in popularity, such as Chinese and Arabic.

“Chinese is a language that seems to be increasingly important, culturally and in business,” Sider said. In fact, according to the Rosetta Stone survey, more than 30 percent believe that fluency in Chinese will be important in the next 50 years.

According to Edward Childs, Jr., career counselor at DePaul University, current careers pursued by former foreign language students at DePaul include: English teacher abroad, interpreter for Tanzanian refugees, social worker for CASA Central in Chicago, advertising agent for DDB in France, and even a calligrapher working in an East Asian art gallery.

“Even if you’re not planning to travel abroad or use foreign languages on a regular basis, still highlight your language skills in your resume in the summary of qualifications field,” Childs said. “Generally, knowing a foreign language can either allow students the ability to leverage greater salaries, or at a minimum, catapult student resumes to the top of the pile.”

In fact, according to CareerBuilder and USA Today’s Q2 2010 Job Forecast, 50 percent of employers said that when deciding between two equally qualified candidates, they would choose the bilingual candidate.

According to Sider anyone can learn a new language, but it requires more than just one or two semesters of study in college. It takes discipline and motivation.

“I believe that some people are more interested in learning foreign languages and understanding different cultures than others and that they therefore put in more time and effort,” said Stephanie Hilger, professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hilger’s former student agrees.

“Learning about a new culture helps to widen a student's world view,” said Molly Elizabeth Laatsch, 22, a recent graduate currently working as an English teacher in Europe.

Laatsch is right. Thanks to studying French and German, I was able to live and work in the European Union, meet interesting people, gain a sense of independence and strongly improve my spoken German. I listed this on my resume when applying for jobs. France is still on my list!

For students serious about learning a new language, Sider advises finding a program that immerses learners completely in the language, a program that will pair you with a native speaking teacher. It’s not always easy, but investing in learning a foreign language is well worth the effort.