The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

While traveling through Europe, Dr. Jason Meyler, chair of the world languages department and associate professor of Spanish at Mount Mary University, and his wife found themselves at a market in Southwest Germany, near Freiburg. Although neither of them were fluent in German, their exposure to other foreign languages allowed them to navigate their way through the market until they were able to find just what they were looking for to eat — aprikosen, the German word for apricots. 

Learning a foreign language offers benefits that have lasting effects for the learner, even beyond the classroom.

“Learning foreign languages has the potential of making you a better person,” Meyler said.

Being fluent in Spanish, knowing a little bit of French and the ability to read and understand Italian and Portuguese has allowed Meyler to communicate better with people from all over the world. 

“Knowing that other language allows me into the world of many other people, which is just amazing, right?” Meyler said. 

Meyler wants his students to go beyond learning the ins and outs of a language in the classroom. He wants them to know that we never stop learning, nor do we have to stop learning. 

“I teach my courses in Spanish language and in Spanish culture with the idea that I want to make my students lifelong learners,” Meyler said. “This doesn’t mean they are going to be in class with me for a thousand years; what it means is I am giving them the skill to continue to learn.”

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and the humanities (languages, history, philosophy, literature and more) are often at odds with each other because there is an argument that you should get a degree in something tangible. What most don’t realize is that math and language work in similar ways. 

“As far as learning other things, research and theories have shown that math and language are two areas that the brain works on together,” said Mary Ellen Kohn-Buday, associate professor of Spanish. “I have found students who are good at math are usually good at language and vice-versa.” 

Kohn-Buday is a multilingual, which is different from a linguist who looks at the science of languages. She speaks Spanish, Italian, and Catalan (used in eastern and northeastern Spain), which are related languages, meaning it is easier to learn another once you know one. 

Memorization and grammar are the two portions of learning a foreign language that math and science students are able to pick up on easily. However, this doesn’t mean that they will be able to automatically understand what they hear. 

“The way I tell my beginning students, who are just learning to conjugate verbs or fill in blanks or work with syntax, is to think of it like a math equation,” Kohn-Buday said. “You replace one number with another one and you get a different answer. It’s the same thing with language; you put in a different word, you’re going to have a different meaning to the sentence.” 

According to Kohn-Buday, there are students who would like to see other foreign languages offered at Mount Mary because of their interest.

“If you study it (foreign language) all through college, your scores on GRE, MCAT, LSAT, any of those kinds of exams, will be higher than someone who didn’t study a language,” Kohn-Buday said. 

Meyler encourages his students to take opportunities for them to practice the language they are learning in class because they will only benefit from it. 

“I had students work at the United Community Center, and they worked with the elderly that came from different countries who just wanted someone to speak to in their language,” Meyler said. 

When his students work with the elderly who speak foreign languages, they practice plasticity, the ability of the brain to repair itself but keep working and keep learning things at any time of your life. 

Kari Schriks is a non-native bilingual with a degree in speech and hearing sciences with a minor in Spanish. Being bilingual in English and Spanish has allowed her to develop her patient care at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“The thing I say to the monolingual Spanish-speaking mom is, ‘Speak to your kid in Spanish. If you want them to be bilingual, speak to them in Spanish,’” Schriks said. 

Schriks struggles when someone tells a parent to not teach their child another language because she wants both the parents and the child to speak whatever language they are most comfortable speaking. 

“I know a couple of doctors that still say this, ‘You should really try to use one language when you talk to your kid,’” Schriks said. “I try to do this as a speech therapist because I do want to give them a good model.” 

Being bilingual allows her to switch between English and Spanish when giving advice about behavioral therapy or occupational therapy or how to request an evaluation in school.

“If I had to put it on a bumper sticker, it would say ‘be bilingual!’” Schriks said.

There are two types of bilingualism: sequential and simultaneous. Schriks is a sequential bilinguist because she learned English first, then Spanish. Simultaneous bilinguals begin learning two languages from birth. 

“Research shows that simultaneous bilinguals are better at inhibiting unwanted responses,” Schriks said. “So, when you talk about inhibiting, that’s an executive function. Basically, when they see a picture of a shoe, they are getting the vocabulary for both words; they are getting ‘zapato’ and they are getting ‘shoe.’” 

After obtaining both words, the bilingual has to inhibit which word they are not going to use based on which language they are using in the setting. If they are in an English-speaking setting, they would use “shoe” and “zapato” if they were in a Spanish-speaking setting. 

The importance of bilingualism is at the center of both Meyler’s and Schriks’ jobs. Meyler would agree with Schriks that it is important for children to learn more than one language because it allows them to grow their confidence and further expand their understanding of other cultures. 

“The earlier you can expose children to languages, the better,” Meyler said. 

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