Reposted from The Chronicles of Higher Education.
First, we cannot deny the economic importance of languages for global competitiveness, or indeed for national security and diplomacy. Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, argues that, “For the U.K. to thrive globally, it has to have a deep-rooted understanding of languages and cultures across the world.” Employers seem to agree, with a recent survey for the British Council demonstrating the varied requirements of different sectors. Overall, 39 percent of business leaders consider it important for potential employees to speak at least one language other than English, but this rises to 72 percent for those in the field of natural resources. So language graduates are highly employable in a range of fields and yet statistics indicate a substantial drop in U.K. university applications for language study (down by 11.2 percent for European and 21.5 percent for non-European languages). While there is criticism from some linguists of the so-called learn-to-earn approach of the U.K. government, there is no doubt that being able to function in another language enhances employability.
A second argument in favor of languages relates to cognitive development and flexibility; equally true for the population at large as for our students. Empirical evidence associates bilingualism in children with increased cognitive skills, multitasking, and prioritization, as well as certain perceptual and classification tasks. But fluency is not essential since studies also show that learning a second language at any age and speaking it regularly can both improve cognitive skills and delay the onset of dementia.
However, the third argument is perhaps the most important for those of us interested in international education. Language study encourages us to deconstruct the linguistic world as we know it, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace cultural “otherness.” It has long been argued that people think differently in different languages and that culture influences language, with bilinguals often recognizing this in themselves. “When I speak French, I am fully aware that I am not the same person as when I speak English”, says Jennie, a blogger who writes about language. Linguists understand that apparently direct translations are fraught with potential misunderstanding and we learn that cultural “others” may not see the world in the same way. For example, in French the word “chaise” designates a different range than the objects we would call “chair”; languages divide up the color spectrum differently with some having no word for green as distinct from blue—in Japan, you go on a “blue” traffic light; others use tenses differently—Malay uses adverbials instead of different verb forms to indicate past and future. It is this kind of disorientation and negotiation of meaning that helps to break down linguistic and cultural ethnocentrism through challenging the perspectives that we view as normal, helping us “doubt the superiority of our own cultural values,” as Robert Selby put it, and questioning established notions of personal identity.”