What Should Students Do with Their Language Skills?

Use them!

The ability to communicate in multiple languages is a valuable commodity in today’s job market. People who speak a second language earn, on average, 12 percent more than those who don’t. Knowing another language enables you to communicate with people in other countries and cultures, but it also helps you understand the rich, complex global world we live in on a deeper level. Knowing another language actually makes a person smarter, leading to higher standardized test scores among students, as well as more flexibility in thinking and better problem solving throughout life. Why would anyone willingly give up these benefits?

For starters, it takes time to become proficient, and it can be hard to keep learning with so many other obligations and academic choices at hand. Add to this the fact that the U.S.’s dedication to language education has been shameful and its commitment to making it possible for students K-12 to become proficient was categorized as “neglect” in “The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait”, published this month by American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  It’s understandable that many people let their skills lapse.

That’s why the onus falls on those who know the value to spread the word that language learning not only matters, but it can have a significant and positive impact on one’s personal and professional life. Students – and their parents – need to hear this message. They need to understand that the past 2, 3 or 4 years of studying Spanish, French or German has not been a “waste of time” but a gift that should be used as a foundation for more learning and as a means for differentiating themselves among peers. So when students ask what they can do with their language skills, share this advice.

Recognize your good fortune. If you have studied another language, you are in the minority in the U.S., and you have an advantage over others. Capitalize on that and use it throughout your life. But to do so, you must…

Keep studying. Students should start studying a foreign language as early as possible and keep at it, even if they’re not required, all through college. Students should continue studying over the summer in more relaxed, immersive-like settings of a language camp or local STARTALK programs. Speaking beyond the typical classroom will prepare students to…

Study abroad. Students should seek out high school exchange programs, faith-based mission trips, and college study abroad programs that focus on languages. Being in-country with a little bit of knowledge and an environment that requires you to use your language skills will enable you to experience first-hand the practical benefits. Immersion language learning is one of the best ways to become proficient because you …

Practice as much as possible. Learning a language is just like learning anything else: practice makes perfect. Students should seek out ways to practice their foreign language skills outside the classroom, including listening to music, watching television shows, reading books, joining language clubs and using language learning apps. The self-discipline and initiative will pay off as it will enable you to…

Leverage your skills. Your language skills can be used as a differentiator – a skill that sets you apart from others whether you’re applying to college or for a job. Students and graduates can showcase not only their proficiency in a foreign language, they can highlight the skills it takes to pursue and learn a language – focus, self-discipline, dedication, hard work – as well as the cross-cultural knowledge and awareness gained.

Although we haven’t been able to change the national system to mandate language learning K-16, we can make a difference in the life of every foreign language student we know. We can help them understand the value of the skills they are in the process of acquiring and to become adults who “use it” to make a difference.

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