Face to face with a new language

Some language departments are having students Skype with their counterparts abroad.

Courtney Johnson

During my first two years of college, I put off taking a foreign language to avoid embarrassing myself in front of a class and learning an entirely new grammar system. I anticipated having to work my butt off when I finally took French, but I had no idea what I was in for. Now after nearly two years of tripping over and struggling to learn the language, I’m hooked. But more satisfying than the mere ability to translate English into French on my own is that taking a foreign language develops more cognitive and cultural benefits that I ever expected it to. 

For example, one thing that the University of Minnesota’s French department is beginning to implement into their curriculum is interactive Skype exchanges with students from France. It is a new practice, so there are still some kinks to be worked out. But every student from my French 1004 class is currently paired up with a student at a university in France with the intention of improving conversation skills. This was a task that was hard for me to get outside of my comfort zone for, but it has been well worth it.

This interactive opportunity has opened the door to an entirely new way of learning about culture other than from a noninteractive book or a foreign film with English subtitles. My partner, who is luckily very patient with my French accent, provided all kinds of insight to the way he, his family and his friends live. In return, I provide him with the same kind of information. I think that this is a great thing, especially for students who are considering studying abroad or those who are unable to. Knowing as much as I can about the language and culture helps to prime me to being more than the typical American tourist and will help me to know what is socially expected of visitors in these countries.

Learning about new and exciting cultures directly from the ones who live in it is one of my favorite facets of learning a new language. But taking a foreign language also offers a great opportunity to improve even in unrelated areas.

Think about it this way: Just as going to a gym and practicing one’s bicep curls creates a brawnier physique, learning and practicing a new language develops the brain.  Studies show that learning a second language helps to build problem solving capabilities, creative thinking skills and mental flexibility. I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer this mental gymnasium to going to the actual gym. The cognitive flexibility that learning a foreign language develops helps to create a better thought process and strengthens divergent thinking and creativity. The organizational patterns in the brain that are established while learning the language help the learner become better at thinking in unusual ways and in more than one direction at once.

This training of the brain and shift of the way one thinks and perceives lead experts to believe that those who are bilingual have better mathematics skills than those who do not speak more than one language. I have never been much of a math person — at all — but maybe with a few years of French under my belt, this English major should give calculus another try.   

When presented with the opportunity, learning a foreign language is something that every student at the University should do, even those not required to. Not only because learning a language opens a student up to other enticing cultures that are different from the often isolated culture of the U.S., but it has a lot of cognitive advantages as well. I got over my fear of learning the language, got outside of my comfort zone and now, je suis une étudiante plus intelligente.

Courtney Johnson welcomes comments at [email protected]