If you grew up in the United States, there’s a high likelihood that you studied a foreign language in school. And there’s an equally high likelihood that you’ve retained little to nothing you learned. Less than 1 percent of American adults are proficient in a language they studied in a U.S. classroom, despite the fact that 93 percent of U.S. high schools were offering foreign language courses as of 2008. So what’s the importance of language in education if the supposed benefits usually aren’t sticking?
Many of the arguments made to support foreign language education rest on the assumption that you’ll still have some working proficiency in that language. Knowing another language opens you up to more job opportunities and can help you out financially in other ways. It makes you a better world citizen, and it makes traveling richer and more rewarding.
But what if you haven’t bothered to resuscitate the language you learned in school? Was it all for nothing, or is that latent knowledge still benefitting you in adulthood long after you satisfied the requirements to graduate from high school?
The Importance Of Language In Education (Even When You’ve Forgotten Everything)
The Brain Benefits
It’s no secret that bilingualism is good for your brain. Exercising the “foreign language” centers in your brain help you build more gray matter, which helps combat dementia and Alzheimer’s, boost your ability to recover from a stroke, multitask more efficiently, and a host of other cognitive benefits (like lengthening your attention span and boosting your inhibitory control, which helps you control your thoughts and behavior).
Of course, all of this research is predicated on bilingual brains — as in, people who are actively speaking two languages or more. Do these benefits still hold for people who were once bilingual?
It’s hard to say just how much these benefits will still apply to you, but if you’re talking about foreign language classes you took when you were young (and really, the brain doesn’t stop developing until around age 25, so any classes you took in college or earlier apply here), it’s not a big reach to say that they do. The importance of early brain development is well-known. Suffice it to say that anything you did to strengthen your cognitive abilities while your brain was still developing has ultimately contributed to your neurological health in lasting ways.
You can’t overestimate the importance of language in education when it comes to establishing an understanding — and often, appreciation — for the world’s cultural diversity.
Those hours you spent learning to think and speak in another language has likely had an untold impact on your intercultural competency, as well your sense of empathy for others. One study found that 75 percent of kids who were bilingual (or were exposed to a second language at some point in their lives) were able to demonstrate a greater understanding of another person’s perspective.
In short, language learning does kind of make you a better person! And even if you couldn’t pull off a conversation in French to save your life, the early exposure you got to a foreign culture likely broadened your perspective at a crucial moment in your brain’s development.
It’s Probably Not Completely Gone
Chances are pretty good that the language you think you lost is still lying dormant in the deepest recesses of your mind.
If you ever had good enough command of a language to speak it with relative ease, you’ll probably always have traces of vocabulary, grammar rules, and an indelible familiarity with how words are supposed to sound.
Additionally, having that preliminary knowledge means you’ll likely need less time to relearn it, if you so choose. Hermann Ebbinghaus, the German psychologist who brought us the forgetting curve, found that it took him less time to relearn the same syllables he’d once committed to memory, even a year later. Plus, if you do decide to bring back the language you once knew, your memory of the language will be that much stronger. In other words, you’ll hardly be starting your online Spanish classes on first base.