Why should you study a foreign language? The answer to this question depends on your personal goals, but whether you think of languages primarily for career enhancement or for personal, cultural, and intellectual enrichment, any language is a rewarding choice. If your objective is international business, you can find out which countries are now or may become trading partners of the United States. If you want adventure, you could pick a language from a part of the world where you would like to travel. Or if you want to go back to your roots, you could learn about your grandparents or their parents by acquiring or adding to your knowledge of their language, their culture, and their world. Every language has something to say to you, and you have something to say in every language.
Will you be fluent? Fluency has many meanings. After three or four years of study, you should be able to express your thoughts, follow your interests, and deal with topics of some intellectual complexity. The more you use the language, the more fluent you will become. Even a little fluency, such as facility with greetings and other social formulas, will go a long way toward making people feel that you are interested in meeting them on their own ground.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of language study is an expanded understanding of diverse, culturally rooted attitudes and behaviors. We cannot begin to imagine how much ethnic and cultural values differ untl we gain access from the inside, through language. Language preserves the history and traditions of a people, through speakers’ common understanding of the meanings of words, expressions, and texts. Only on a foundation of such insider knowledge can cultural understanding be achieved.
Studying even one language will dramatically increase your sensitivity to linguistic and cultural difference; it will make you more aware of how you use your own language as well. Many people who study languages and cultures are surprised to find the experience transformative. Students of language discover ways of seeing the world that they did not suspect. For some, developing knowledge of a second language and culture is like expanding one’s personality, acquiring options that are both enriching and liberating. Some students find particular satisfaction in reading texts and hearing stories in the original language, in experiencing authors in their own voices. Others gain a sense of achievement from being able to participate more fully in national and international politics and events.
While you gain an appreciation for the world outside your own, contact with other cultures will give you new perspectives on your own language, culture, and society. The comparisons that you can make between your language and the one you learn will lead to a greater understanding of the nature of language itself. Knowing two languages will give you a real advantage in starting a third new language.
Knowing another language enriches your personal life, expands the range of professional opportunities open to you, and increases your power to act as a citizen of the world.
In additional to providing you with knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are necessary in the workplace, the study of languages, literatures, and cultures, like the study of history, philosophy, or mathematics, helps you develop the analytic skills needed to be an effective participant in local and national discussions. Studying languages in the context of history, politics, and popular culture can help you follow international events with with insight, opening up perspectives to make you an informed and responsible citizen of your country and of the world.