The Importance of Learning a Foreign Language
When I began this idea it was mostly to tell people the overall benefits of being a second language speaker. The cognitive benefits, to strengthen memory and to become overall smarter. Studies show that speaking a second or third language can improve mental flexibility and creative thinking skills, enhanced metalinguistic awareness, and greater communicative sensitivity. Other than the benefits for you speaking another language can give one a deeper understanding of the cultures of the world we live in. the smile you get on the face of the old man you meet when you say hello in Arabic or in French as opposed to the new international lingua franca: English. This was a topic that was near and dear to me because I wanted those around me to experience the joys of learning to Salsa dance or learn Tai Chi and be able to speak some newly learned Spanish or Mandarin greeting to the instructor. One of the main points of resistance I came across time and again was: Why should I learn a language? Common reasons for not learning were:
1. Everyone speaks English anyway
2. I don’t have the time
3. I would have to travel to country X to learn X language well
4. I’m too old to learn
5. I don’t have the money, aptitude or energy
My initiative and its goals
From this presentation in my communications class, a spark was ignited. I met a Chinese language teacher at a conference who was impressed with my Mandarin Chinese and having been to China. She asked me to come to her class. When I gave my presentation on the importance of learning a foreign language at Cass Tech High School, the students lit up with excitement at the possibility of traveling to China. (One girl had studied Arabic and wanted to know questions about my experiences) they asked not only questions about how long I had studied but what China was like. What was being black in China like? How hard did I have to work to get scholarships? What was it like going to Wayne State? I was expecting the students to be apathetic about what I had to say, but from then my quest was born. I wanted to keep talking to students like these ones who, in many ways, reminded me of myself: minority and on the bottom rung of middle class. They weren’t rich, I’m sure many thought what is a young black kid from the inner city going to do with Chinese? I wanted to show them the possibilities.
How do You Travel?
Traveling is not as hard as one might think. My older sister was the first person in our family to leave the country when she joined the Air Force and was stationed in Japan. I think this was a turning point for a 15 year old me. She learned Japanese, climbed Mt. Fuji and sent home pictures where she dressed in Kimonos and had adventures with new Japanese friends.
To me this was something that was only possible in dreams up until that point. Something that was lovely, abstract and floating “out there” in the unknown future. Travel and speaking another language was this esoteric pie in the sky that no one I had ever known (especially not that looked like me or came from my background) had actually done.
Now that I knew it could be done, it was time to set actual plans and stop dreaming. When I went to college, I knew this was my chance to take something more exciting than Spanish. Arabic was as foreign a language as foreign languages could get. There were no cognates, no similarities in grammar, the Arabic script didn’t even follow the same direction as English. I was in for a challenge, because where as I and a few other students had no Arabic heritage, over half the class did. This put me at a disadvantage, as I was thinking of the answer and wrapping my head around the pronunciation, students who already knew the language prattled off the answer at the speed of light. My ultimate goal was to visit Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan or Oman so I could really pick up conversational Arabic. So I applied for the CLS, Boren, Fulbright and other scholarships to travel.
Although my search for scholarships and grants at the time were fruitless, my point here is that there is no harm in applying. Grants and scholarships are not just for college students but sometimes there are grants for delegations of high school students and ordinary people to find funding to see a new part of the world. The CLS or critical need language scholarship offered through the department of state is one that has multiple options for studying the harder languages.
Next Plan of Action
I want to reach out to more schools and young black kids who think all there is to life is the world they see around them. And in some cases, what they see around them can be pretty bleak. I plan on giving a biweekly lecture on the importance of learning a foreign language and gaining a global perspective. Having a global perspective is something that is important not just for African American youth, but for the kind of kids who grew up around me in Harper Woods, suburban working middle class, whose parents may not have went to college or they may not yet know what it means to dream bigger than just having a good job. Expanding your horizons teaches you to realize that just going to college to land a job is not all there is to life. Sometimes the perfect role or career for you is one you create.
How I plan on going to Middlebury for Mandarin Chinese
The Middlebury program is an intensive language emersion system that focuses on signing a language pledge. What this means is, if your target language is Zulu, you can only speak Zulu the entire 8 weeks you are at Middlebury. I want to revisit my Chinese and get better at it. When I studied in China, I got to a point where I was good but then it plateaued. Perhaps this was because I would often speak English with the expats that I met from, Canada, the UK and US. It could have also been, switching back and forth my brain didn’t get a chance to be challenged because if a situation got too intense or too difficult with too many new words then I would just go back to my comfort zone. Using the same Chinese phrases over and over. This won’t happen at Middlebury with the language pledge. Participants are not allowed to read, listen to or watch movies or television in any language but the language you wish to learn. I suspect that there will be many times where I will just be silent and pantomime to attempt communication. And there will be my plateau phrases but something will happen within the first week or so. I will break through the barrier of communication and just speak. I imagine myself a Confucian scholar working diligently to achieve my goal, HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) level 6! So this is what summer 2016 holds for me.
Just Speaking and Lessons from Dr. Kline
Professor Laura Kline was one of the first people I met when I started attending Russian Tea at my univeristy. This spunky dynamic woman with no Russian heritage but plenty of interest in the culture, gathered students for conversations. I had only learned the basics in Russian at this point, so I thought I would just sit back and be a passive learner. See what the advanced students of Russian did at this cultural luncheon replete with Russian cookies, snacks and cakes, in addition to a Traditional Samovar.
Then she turns to me and asked me to say something about myself. Well, I hardly knew anything! But with her approach, you use what little you have to craft what you don’t have. I started speaking and felt that familiar rush of language learning exhilaration. Turns out I could introduce myself. I kept coming back to Russian Tea and every time, I was put in that uncomfortable zone of looking for new ways to combine new and old vocabulary. This was a great strategy to overcome shyness and the danger of trying to wait until you were “good enough” to speak Russian or “I haven’t learned that yet” so I’ll sit this conversation out syndrome.
As a part of the plan for keeping up with my Russian language skills, I plan on taking formal Russian classes at my university. Picking up where I left off with the advanced classes. Having a guided structure to how I study again will be a great way to practice, no apply, all that I have learned in St. Petersburg. As far as Arabic, I think I want to spend some time in 2017 getting reacquainted with the language. Who knows perhaps I’ll make it to Oman or Dubai!
Lastly, you don’t have to plan grandiose trips and make lofty commitments to speak whatever language you seek to study. Making use of diverse environments for language emersion on the cheap can help you break into language learning. Below are some places and settings I advice starting with to help:
1. Community centers
2. Heritage centers
3. Place of worship
4. Make a new friend who speaks your target language