It is nice to be able to order a drink or find the restroom in a foreign country. But is it necessary for famously monolingual Americans to have full command of a second language? The answer increasingly seems to be, “yes.”
“For every language you add, there are millions more people you can work with,” says David Crawford, senior academic counselor for the College of Arts and Sciences at Oklahoma State University.
He works with students who are majoring or minoring in one of OSU’s foreign language programs as well as students who are interested in taking a few classes to gain marketability in their industry by learning a second language.
Of the nearly 20 languages taught at colleges and universities around Oklahoma it might be hard to determine which is the most beneficial.
Dr. Perry Gethner, the department head of Foreign Languages and Literatures at OSU, says the answer to this question varies largely on an individual’s goals and career path.
“Some languages are considerably more useful for people than others,” he says.
Gethner says Spanish overtook French as the most common language taught in schools in the 1980s. However, both remain valuable languages.
Crawford works with many students who are preparing for jobs on oilrigs and want to add Spanish to their credentials. He says many of his French students have been able to work in Haitian communities. Additionally, students in the school’s large hotel and restaurant management program benefit from foreign languages in an industry that serves tourists from all over the world.
“There are pockets of foreign language all over the nation,” Crawford points out.
People with a second language are open to options in these areas that their monolingual peers are not.
“Having another language can really make you a (hot) commodity,” Crawford says.
For practical purposes, one could also turn to the list of languages the United States Department of State has classified as critical need. The need for people fluent in these 13 languages exceeds the number of people who are bilingual in them. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian are five languages from this list taught at colleges and universities in the state.
The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education has placed an emphasis on global competency with the goal of producing college graduates who are more aware of other countries and cultures, says Ben Hardcastle, the director of communications for the State Regents.
Learning a second language can greatly contribute to creating more globally aware graduates, Gethner says. “It contributes to open-mindedness and broadening horizons.”
Further, he says learning a second language is very good for developing the mind.
“Students (become) better writers in their first language and more careful about accuracy of expression and grammar,” Gethner says.
Recently published studies by Canadian research professor Ellen Bialystok do, in fact, show that people who speak two or more languages have increased ability to pay attention, organize and even have delayed onset of dementia.
These enhanced communication skills, Crawford says, serve students well in the job market even when they are not speaking the foreign language at all.