Apr 17 2014, 10:53am CDT | by Forbes
The ability to speak another language is seen as crucial to success in a globalized economy but advocating learning languages based on their usefulness is flawed. Instead, we should promote them for their own sake and recognise that learning a language is for life, not just for business.
Arguments in favour of learning a language are often based on the practical benefit. In a world where commerce increasingly transcends linguistic borders, the ability to communicate in another tongue is portrayed as a vital lubricant to trade.
Mandarin is perhaps the chief beneficiary of this mind-set. The growth of Mandarin teaching in the West over the last decade has been astonishing. Propelled by China’s entry into the world economy and nurtured by the Confucius Classrooms program, Mandarin is now taught in thousands of schools.
This new enthusiasm for Mandarin is endorsed at the highest levels. Fresh from a trip to China last year, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron urged schools to ditch French and German and start teaching Mandarin instead.
“I want Britain linked up to the world’s fastest growing economies,” he said. “And that includes young people learning the languages to seal tomorrow’s business deals.”
Advocates of the practical approach to languages range wider than Mandarin. The British Council, a cultural and educational organisation, last year published a report setting out the languages the U.K. needs most.
Using a variety of criteria, including security and tourism but heavily weighted towards the needs of business, the report sets out the 10 most important languages for the future. Although not quite as Europhobic as the prime minister’s remarks suggest, the report has Mandarin in fourth place.
But while ranking languages in order of importance is a fun parlor game, as an argument for learning them this approach on its own just won’t wash. Persuading people – let alone children – that learning a particular language will be good for them in the future is doomed to failure.
The difficulty in basing a language teaching strategy solely around the practical advantages is that we can see right through it. With around 328 million first-language speakers, English may be the third most widely spoken native tongue (after Mandarin and Spanish), but it is by far the most popular second language.
According to another British Council report, an estimated two billion people, more than a quarter of the world’s population, will be learning English by the end of this decade. Around 400 million people in China alone are thought to be learning English.
While the position of English as an international language should not be taken for granted, arguing that English speakers should learn another language to help them get on founders on the fact that their native tongue is the most useful of all.
This is not a green light to monolingual complacency among English speakers, however. There is much more to learning a language than its practical use. Language provides access to a culture in a way that nothing else can, unlocking the door to knowledge and understanding.
As last year’s British Council report put it, at the same time as advocating an economic approach to language learning: “Languages are the bedrock of the world’s cultural heritage. Every language offers a rich and unique insight into different ways of thinking and living as well as into the history of the myriad of cultures and peoples across the globe.”
If this is not reason enough to learn a language, numerous studies show that bilingualism has a myriad of benefits, from improving test scores and aiding multi-tasking to making us more perceptive. It even helps us make better financial decisions.
But the message is not getting through. Last week saw news of a 10-year low in the number of U.K. students applying to study languages at university. Even Mandarin has seen a near-30% fall in the number of students taking it at school./>/>
It is time for a new approach to promoting languages. Rather than seeing language acquisition solely as a passport to success in business, we should see it as a way of connecting with other cultures. Yes, it can help our order book, but learning a language is good in itself. It opens our eyes, broadens our horizons and gives us an insight into other people’s lives.
Rather than appealing just to the head, telling people how much they stand to gain financially from learning a language, we should appeal to the heart as well. It is only through understanding their language that we can hope to get close to understanding how people think. Knowledge of another language enriches us far beyond helping us get rich.
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