Enter a thrilling new world - learn a foreign language

April 27, 2005

Guest Opinion:


As shown by last week's Tucson International Mariachi Festival and the earlier Gem and Mineral Show, featuring Chinese minerals, Tucson routinely welcomes visitors from other nations.

As an involved citizen in a city with ties around the world, I believe acquiring a second language is a smart move.

Our world is shrinking, troubled but full of opportunity. Can a person make a difference in the complex global community of the 21st century? You can if you're a businessperson, parent, teacher, traveler, community leader, student or wearing any of thousands of other hats that engage you in the world beyond your doorstep.

As a language teacher, I hope many Americans will make learning a second language a top priority in 2005.

Every day, the need to communicate better worldwide increases, as technology, politics, economics and social issues become more complex, affecting us all across oceans and borders.

Our capacity to deal with these issues depends on our ability to eliminate cultural and linguistic barriers. In essence, language and communication are at the heart of the human experience. Communicating in a common language makes it possible for people to go beyond rudimentary comprehension to respect, friendship, nuance, in-depth understanding, a clearer global perspective and much more. It opens business doors, illuminates social issues and brings hope for a more peaceful world.

Learning a language is more than memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules. In addition to the art of communication, it may involve understanding how to function in another culture and exploring business and civic life. It can instill an appreciation for history and government, the arts, literature and philosophy. Learning another language helps us develop further insight into our own language and culture.

In the United States, more than 500,000 elementary and more than 7 million secondary students are enrolled in foreign language courses.

In 2002, 2,519 two- and four-year American colleges and universities reported teaching languages to 1,347,036 students, reports the Modern Languages Association.

Languages most frequently studied that year were American Sign Language, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

People of all ages can benefit from language study. Research shows that children exposed to two languages at an early age demonstrate greater cognitive development and creativity. Students with four or more years of foreign language study score higher on math and verbal SAT tests.

The study of languages also helps students with critical thinking and communication skills that affect other areas of academic study and future success.

In addition, researchers affirm that learning another language, practicing it or both appears to offset age-related declines in mental performance.

Business and government increasingly need employees with multi-lingual skills and multi-cultural understanding.

In some industries, the most appealing job candidates are those who can build relationships through their abilities in translation, interpretation or both.

Knowing more than one language enhances job opportunities in health care, education, law enforcement, technology, communications, social service, legal and military fields.

With this realization, the U.S. Senate has passed a resolution to establish 2005 as The Year of Languages, and many organizations will be urging Americans to acquire a new language as a necessary 21st century skill.

Can you do this in southern Arizona? You can. Tucson's diversity is an asset and a resource. You have the opportunity to learn a language very conveniently, if a native speaker lives in your home.

You can join one of Tucson's many international clubs, attend events like Tucson Meet Yourself and many Latino/Hispanic, Native American and ethnic festivals, enjoy art exhibits, music, dance and theater performances from other countries, visit places like the newly inaugurated mural in Oury Park, savor a raspado on South Sixth Avenue, rent foreign films with English subtitles, and read your children books printed in two languages.

You can supplement all of this with a more formal approach: Take a credit, noncredit, online, immersion, televised or on-campus language class to focus on acquisition, conversation, cinema or literature at Pima Community College, where you can study more than a dozen languages.

Make a commitment to broaden your world in 2005: Learn a new language. Get started. Pronto.

Dr. Dolores Durán-Cerda is a full-time language faculty member at Pima Community College. She represents Arizona on the Year of Languages Ad Hoc Committee through the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and is president of the Arizona chapter of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.