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Role of foreign languages in a liberal education curriculum

Posted on Monday, April 15, 2019

Speaking multiple foreign languages allows integration of different perspectives, enhances analytical abilities and hones memory, writes Neeta Sharma

The primary goal of a liberal education university is to provide relevant skills to students that they will need for lifelong learning. Having the knowledge of foreign languages is such a skill. The life skills of speaking, listening, debating, personal presentation and confidence are all brought together by learning another language.

Language and culture go hand-in-hand. The more familiar one is with languages, the easier it is to understand the cultural contexts that shape the information, ideas, beliefs and customs that one encounters when interacting with people around the world.

Language learning was once considered nothing more than a hobby, but as the world continues to become increasingly connected, learning a language other than English has become a necessity. Advancing technologies have afforded us the ability to communicate no matter where we are in the world, amplifying the importance of foreign language study.
A liberal arts education has never been more relevant in terms of preparing young people for work and life. Every day on our campus, we are opening minds and hearts so that students can see opportunities in the world, focus their energies and collaborate with others to find new solutions to complex problems. We can, therefore, say that, foreign languages is not only a tool but also a guide to ‘deeper understanding of the humanities’ and that ‘the relation of language to the humanities’ is in many ways like that of mathematics to the sciences. Both mathematics and language exist, yet both are at the same time, doors to neighbouring studies.
Study in language, literature, and culture has long been a defining feature of education in the liberal arts. Speaking, reading, and writing have traditionally stood at the heart of education because the arts of language and the tools of literacy are key qualifications for full participation in social, political, economic, and cultural life. Today, the hallmarks of a liberal education - communication, critical analysis, and creativity - are more important than ever as prerequisites for success in life.
A rapidly changing world means that young people will need to know the value of seeing things from different perspectives and be experts in collaboration and communication. The knowledge of foreign languages can prepare them for the future. Languages assist in developing nimble minds, comfort with different cultures and ideas, and skill at writing and speaking, which are all qualities encouraged by liberal education. Languages provide the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively with others through cross-cultural literacy where students learn to think abstractly. We no longer live in a world where people hold the same jobs throughout their entire lives. Many of our students will have jobs in 10 years that do not exist now. For that reason, our university must continue to prepare young people to think with rigour and creativity rather than simply train them for a particular line of work, outside the linear equation.
Our cybernetic world has brought us speed and ease of information retrieval; even where the screen has replaced paper. However, language still remains the main mode of communication. Those who learn to read slowly and carefully and to write clearly and precisely will also acquire the dexterity and visual perceptions associated with working in an electronic environment.
The knowledge of a foreign language also enhances your cognitive and analytical abilities. Memory improvement, longer attention span, and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline, are just a few of the known positive effects of speaking two or more languages. It is said that when you make a decision in your second language, you are more likely to think logically and avoid basing your decision on emotion. On the individual level, it improves personality and increases your sense of self-worth as well.
Business skills coupled with foreign language skills enhance the value of an employee in the marketplace. Learning a foreign language essentially necessitates learning its culture as well. Culture is known as the ‘software of the mind’ that one’s patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving are possibly influenced by. Employers look for people who have a broad range of knowledge with an appreciation of diversity. There is not a single career field that would not benefit from knowing another language. Business majors should know a second language because they will be doing business with many different people, some of whom will most likely not speak English. 
The ability to speak the same language as your clients helps build a strong rapport, often resulting in longer-lasting business partnerships. While English may open doors because it is the lingua franca of international business, a confident command of other languages will help conflict resolution and enable to close deals. This aptitude gives graduates a competitive edge over others in career choices. It creates more positive attitudes, less prejudices and more respect toward people who are different. Foreign languages expand one’s world view, limiting the barriers between people, and barriers that cause distrust and fear.
The mission statements and strategic planning documents of many institutions make prominent mention of interdepartmental initiatives, inter or cross-disciplinarity, and collaboration. Interpretation, translation, and cross-cultural communication are areas of inquiry that reside in language and literature departments and also form part of the bedrock of liberal education.
Some may be sceptical that learning languages is going to become obsolete with the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) but it will take years before any translation software or magical devices will be able to do half the job. The journey of language learning is fraught with obstacles. Overcoming these adversities is what will boost the confidence of students and build character. Every victory – no matter how small, will make them better equipped to handle future challenges, build consistency and persistence, and lead to a well-rounded personality.
(Neeta Sharma is a professor at FLAME University. Views expressed here are personal.)


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