When children are first presented with a course of study in a second language, they often find they enjoy the experience at first, but then when the hard work sets in, they want out. Given their comparatively limited experience in life, they often cannot foresee any practical uses of knowing and being able to speak this new language they are learning. This is especially sad, given that childrens’ young minds do so well with learning new things like languages.
A similar situation occurs quite frequently when parents “expose” their children to music, usually with piano lessons or perhaps enrolling their child to play in a school band. Just when the musical learning curve begins to steepen, the kids (with their aggravated parents’ support) demand to drop lessons. All of a sudden, their previous “interest” evaporates.
Of course, in both cases what is at work is a very natural human tendency to balk at exertion. Humans of all ages simply rationalize that their interest has waned, when what is actually happening is that they have reached a plateau point…a point where extra exertion is required to overcome a given set of challenges in the study. At that point, the human mind is loathe to look down the road to the future, to visualize any tangible benefits to continuing with the course of study. It all seems like just too much work.
We all want to have fun in life, for every moment to be enjoyable or at least not too demanding of our energies. However, if we cave into these feelings and let our minds rationalize that we are losing interest because what we are studying is no longer “fun,” then we lose a very great opportunity.
As parents we need to find ways to help our children redefine fun. We ourselves can benefit just as much when we objectively assess our own situations in life. By redefining “fun” to be a sense of satisfaction after challenge, triumph after exertion, we can turn nearly any activity in which we are engaged into “fun.”
Looking Back in Hindsight
How many adults look back and rue the fact that they dropped their piano lessons. That they quit their German class just as they were beginning to actually be able to speak the language.
There are many long-term benefits to foreign language study, but those benefits will never be conferred if progression in the course of study is abruptly ended.
Keeping a Sense of Perspective
As parents of children learning a foreign language, we need to help them to see ahead…to see those long-term benefits of knowing another language, or perhaps two or three other languages. In other words, we need to function as our childrens’ eyes, as it were. We need to provide perspective in the form of communicating verbally and clearly that there is indeed challenge in life’s activities, but that from the perspective of an entire life (not just a childhood) there will be pleasure and a deep sense of accomplishment if they hang in there.
There will also be very practical benefits which can enhance the quality of life, open up otherwise unattainable opportunities, provide chances for increased economic security, and deepen understanding of our fellow man and our shared human state.
(Naturally, these truths hold true for adult learners as much as they do for child learners, and we adults need to remind ourselves to keep long-term perspective alive as well.)
Practical Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language
Much has been said of the benefits of language study in an ever more globalized world. The arguments for learning languages in order to thrive in modern-day business are compelling.
However, there are other equally important benefits of studying a second language.
As a kid, I first studied Spanish in Junior High School. Like many kids, that was simply the language offered and it was required. I’m not sure I enjoyed learning Spanish, but I did sense my mind opening up. Suddenly my brain was hearing all new sounds, new nuances, new emphases. At once the world seemed like a much larger place than before, and yet (paradoxically) it also seemed more within my grasp and in that sense became more intimate and less intimidating.
As my mind opened up, I found to my amazement that I could reason in a new language whose grammar and construction were different from my own language of English. The world seemed to become more three-dimensional, I could see it from another vantage point. I began dreaming in Spanish…wow!
This experience repeated itself when I was thrust into a third-year French class at a new school. As far as the powers that be at the new school were concerned, I was a certain age and in a certain grade, so I would be in French 3 regardless of whether I’d ever seen or heard a word of it before. I persevered, because I was forced to persevere by an external entity (the school) and because I wasn’t allowed to “lose interest” as discussed at the beginning of this article, I made it over that plateau point and there were good things on the other side…there were long-term benefits.
Again when I studied Russian with the local college professor every week in her home. My dad and brother and I went weekly to learn this very different language, complete with its cyrillic alphabet and another set of new sounds. We would sit at her dining room table and read elementary school primers in Russian, and we would tune into Radio Moscow with her shortwave radio.
And finally again when I took German in High School. (By this time, as you may guess, I was actually beginning to enjoy languages. I was starting to have “fun.”)
The Benefits, As Promised
So what were my long-term benefits of learning a foreign language? Well for starters, my understanding of my own English language grew significantly: by learning various different grammatical constructions (and the “foreign” thought processes behind them), I came to have a more mature understanding of the use of English structure, grammar, and style (and, in turn, the thought processes behind them).
The farther I went in learning other languages, the more other nations and peoples all around the globe became solid and real, and gradually those other nations and those other peoples were transformed into parents and children just like my family. That realization of similarity is something the world cannot have too much of. Without a sense of shared humanity, nations simply compete, conquer, and kill. Studying foreign languages gave me a sense of connection with other peoples, and that sense helps me to see other peoples and other nations more clearly today.
Are these benefits “fun”? When I was a kid, I probably would have said not. However, I believe these benefits have entirely moulded me into a different being. A person who has more compassion for people around the world, because I’m not so frightened of them. Contrary to what we have been told all our lives, ignorance is not bliss.
Practical Benefits Too
Yes, there were also practical benefits to studying the various languages I studied: foreign movies became more accessible, novels by foreign authors (even in English translation) seemed more transparent, specific technical terms in music such as “allegro non troppo” and “sehr markiert” had a greater depth of meaning.
It’s Never Too Late to Learn
Learning a new language can indeed be fun. It can provide a sense of wonder, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of adventure. The practical value of knowing another language when travelling abroad or when doing business in a global setting is inestimable. Exercising your brain, developing its flexibility, can open up all sorts of new avenues for you.
About the Author
David Sims is a cellist and web designer. He enjoys reading, collecting recordings of his favorite classical music artists and, of course, playing the cello himself. He loves to write, and has recently begun blogging at Dave’s Blog Engine [http://davesblogengine.com/].