Friday, 3 February 2012

Language learning: for business or pleasure?

It is a sign of the times that arguments for learning a foreign language are so often framed in utilitarian terms: will knowing a language get me a job? The economist Lawrence Summers recently argued in the New York Times that there will be less use for foreign languages as English dominates business more and more and people use technology to translate. I liked this response from Marcelo  M. Surez-Orozco:

I enjoyed this line: "Learning a foreign language is about a way of being in the world, not about getting the next deal done."

Britain, we are told, suffers economically because of our shortage of linguists. Research will indicate that language graduates are less likely to be unemployed. I have no doubt that is all true and I, like many fellow teachers, tell students that learning a language will help them in the job market. I somehow doubt, however, whether this washes very much with kids. They might accept that it is true, but I don't think it is likely to persuade them to take a language rather than, say, a science subject.

It is much more likely that, in later life, our students will derive other benefits from learning a language. They will travel, converse, socialise, read, watch films, listen to music; they'll do all sorts of things they enjoy through the medium of a foreign language. Maybe we should talk more about these things with our students, explaining why our lives have been so enriched by language learning. We should tap into the social and affective, not the economic and acquisitive.

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