Why Study a Language?

Graphic of the world with different flags

The world is full of languages.

Listen to Dr. Janice Aski speak about the importance of learning a language.

How far do you have to go from your front door to know that this is true? Think about how many more people and places you could really get to know, newspapers and books you could read, movies and TV programs you could understand, Web sites you could visit with another language!

Did you know that studying a second language can improve your skills and grades in math and English and can improve entrance exam scores -- SATs, ACTs, GREs, MCATs, and LSATs? Research has shown that math and verbal SAT scores climb higher with each additional year of world language study, which means that the longer you study a world language, the stronger your skills become to succeed in school. Studying a world language can improve your analytic and interpretive capacities. And three years of language study on your record will catch the eye of anyone reading your job or college application.

If you've already learned a language other than English at home, expanding your knowledge of its vocabulary, grammar, culture, and literature -- at the same time you are learning English -- will also improve your chances for success in school and in your career.

More and more businesses work closely with companies in other countries. They need many different kinds of workers who can communicate in different languages and understand other cultures. No matter what career you choose, if you've learned a second language, you'll have a real advantage. A technician who knows Russian or German, the head of a company who knows Japanese or Spanish, or a salesperson who knows French or Chinese can work successfully with many more people and in many more places than someone who knows only one language. 

There are lots of Americans who speak languages other than English. Nurses, doctors, or police officers may need to speak more than one language to do their jobs well. Hotel managers or journalists who know English and Spanish or English and Korean may look much better at promotion time than people who know only English. Professionals who know other languages are called on to travel and exchange information with people in the United States and other countries throughout their careers. Knowing more than one language enhances opportunities in government, business, law, medicine and health care, teaching, technology, the military, communications, industry, social service, and marketing. An employer will see you as a bridge to new clients or customers if you know a second language. You are also more likely to win the trust and friendship of people whose languages you know.

Discover new worlds! Get an insider's view of another culture and a new view of your own. Studying a new language, reading other people's stories, and connecting with people in their own language can be a source of pleasure and surprise. 

Connect with other cultures. Learning about other cultures will help you expand your personal horizons and become a responsible citizen. Your ability to talk to others and gain knowledge beyond the world of English can contribute to your community and your country. 

What can you expect? You will learn a second language in exciting new ways, using technology and focusing on communication. Learning a language is not just learning grammar and vocabulary; it is learning new sounds, expressions, and ways of seeing things; it is learning how to act in another culture, how to know a new community from the inside. 

When should you start and how much can you learn? You are never too young and it is never too late to begin. Depending on how long you study, you can gain different levels of fluency. You will probably not sound like a native speaker who has spoken the language at home as a child. Don't worry; you're not expected to. To a greater or lesser degree you will, however, make yourself understood, read magazines or books for pleasure or information, and meet and talk with new groups of people. Of course, it doesn't happen overnight. Just like learning math, history, or playing the piano, language learning takes time. And it adds to who you are. 

Should you continue language study after high school? Yes! Don't waste your investment of time and effort; whatever you have learned is a foundation for further study. Stick with it. Use your second language on the job; seek out opportunities to use it in your community; in college, take more courses, study abroad at intersession or for a summer, a semester, or a year. Some programs teach languages in conjunction with engineering, business, nursing, or journalism. And you might decide to start yet another language. When you study a language, you learn about how to learn a language, so learning the next one is easier. 

There's no one answer. Here are the twelve most likely to be offered in your high school or college: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, Chinese, Arabic, and Portuguese. Swahili, American Sign Language, and Navajo -- and 121 other languages -- are also taught in American high schools, colleges, and universities. Whatever language you choose, learning it will make a difference in how you see the world and in how the world sees you.

* The Center for Languages, Literatures and Cultures thanks the Office of Foreign Language Programs of the Modern Language Association (26 Broadway, 3rd floor, New York, NY 10004-1789)  for the content of this page.