Why I Want My Children To Learn Foreign Languages


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When I was teaching at the University of Virginia, for every new semester, I would start the first class in the exact same way.

Once my students had arrived, settled in to their seats, and made name tags for themselves, I would ask them to reflect on a single question:

“Why are you here to learn Spanish?”

As a group, we would spend forty or so minutes sharing our answers. Students in the lower levels often admitted that they were only in class because they had to be; UVa requires two years of language study for many majors. Others wanted to learn Spanish so that they could use it in a future career, often something in medicine or business. And a few—a very few—were there for simple love of the language. Those students, of course, were my favorites. Just kidding—maybe.

My goal for this conversation was simple: I wanted my students to connect what we were doing in class to something bigger. Language learning is hard work, and I wanted them to have a clear motivation for the semester’s worth of studying that they were about to take on. But, in addition, I also wanted to challenge my students to think about the real purpose of learning Spanish—a purpose that goes beyond beyond college requirements or professional skill-building. I wanted them to see the human element of language learning.

You see, language learning is so much more than verb conjugations and vocabulary—it’s about other people. It’s about putting aside your own comfort and your own comfortable perspective and being awkward so that you can learn from others. It’s about being willing to make mistakes—like saying “soup” when you really mean “soap”—because you know that it’s more important to get to know someone than to speak perfectly all the time. You could even consider speaking a foreign language a form of hospitality, a way to make others feel “at home” by talking to them in their native tongue. 

People as the point of language learning: this is the chief lesson that I, as a homeschooling parent, want to impart to my children. And yet, It’s not the only reason why I want them to learn languages. As I’ve been thinking about this more lately, here are a few other reasons that I’ve been able to articulate for myself:

Reason #1: I want my children to learn foreign languages so that…they can befriend, love, and serve others.

This is our primary motivation for language learning: to connect with others and be a meaningful influence in their lives (and they in ours).

Reason #2: I want my children to learn foreign languages so that…so that they can have a deeper understanding of the way language works.

I really didn’t understand English grammar until I started learning a second language. Why do we use a particular word order in English? Where do our words come from? These weren’t even questions that I could formulate until I started seriously studying languages. Now, having learned three other languages, I have a greater appreciation for and understanding of my native tongue.

Reason #3: I want my children to learn foreign languages so that…they have more professional opportunities available to them.

This also ties back into reason #1. While a doctor who speaks only English may be able to build a good career in America, a doctor who speaks English and Spanish can not only practice in America (and serve Spanish-speaking patients well), but he may also be able to do volunteer work in other countries, or move to another country to teach in a medical school there, or conduct medical research with an international organization. The opportunities multiply with language proficiency.

Reason #4: I want my children to learn foreign languages so that…they can have a more nuanced view of the world.

If you speak more than one language—and especially if you have had the chance to travel to other countries—you know that spending time with (or in) another culture makes it hard to stay locked into your own narrow perspective. While we want our children to value the things that we value, we also want them to learn from others. Here’s a quick example of what that’s meant for me: I’ve found that my time spent  in Latin America has really relaxed my perspective on parenting. As I’ve traveled, I’ve come to understand that not only does the U.S. have a much more politicized parenting culture than many other places in the world, but so many of our ideological debates—BLW or purées? early or late bedtimes?—are really more a matter of personal preference versus moral imperative. And thankfully, that perspective keeps me from being too neurotic...most of the time.

Reason #5: I want my children to learn foreign languages so that…they know that they can do hard things.

Language learning requires consistent practice, thinking critically about one’s own learning, and intellectual risk-taking. I want my children to be comfortable doing all of these things, because they are skills that will serve them well throughout their lives—not just in an academic setting, but in any area of life.

How about you—what’s your motivation for learning languages? Share here, or join us over at the Language Learning At Home Facebook Community to continue the discussion!