How Important Is It to Learn a Second Language?

The past few days have been busy due to the holiday and because as of late, I have been engrossed in watching Korean dramas that stream for free on Netflix. Watching Korean dramas got me thinking, how important is it to learn a second language? Or maybe more appropriately, I should say how important it is to learn a second language.

Thirty-some odd years ago when I was a native Korean speaker entering the school system in the U.S., there was no value-add for knowing Korean or any other foreign/world language.

In fact, my school teachers discouraged my parents from continuing our Korean language development and insisted that we solely speak English in order to help my English language skills to develop quicker. Back then, it made all the sense in the world.

We lived in the U.S. and therefore, we should speak English. Nonetheless, my parents were relentless in their belief that although we lived in the U.S., we were still Korean and should learn the Korean language and embrace Korean culture. There was no ESL (English as a Second Language) program at our school so I learned English through the proven teaching method called “sink or swim”. (Forgive my sarcasm. )

Times have changed. With the advent of the internet and the über connected society in which we now live, it is not only an advantage to know a second language, but depending on what one wants to do in life, it is in some ways a necessity.

We live in a global society and global economy, and though I am sure there are some that would argue that everyone should learn English, there are many countries that require children to learn the native language plus English. So again, the U.S. must embrace world languages and the importance of learning another language in order to compete. Here are some thoughts on what we can do to help children develop a second language:

1. Start early, and by early I mean pre-school, if not sooner. Even exposure to the sounds of different languages will help a child develop the ability to make those sounds. There are so many age-appropriate DVDs such as the Little Pim series that are engaging.

2. At the latest, start in middle school. Most middle schools offer a world language now. Some schools may have GPA requirements, so that’s something to look into ahead of time.

3. Be persistent. If you speak a second language, consistently speak that with your child as well as with others who speak it. In this way, you will model for your child that you value the language for yourself as much as for your child.

4. Use technology, i.e. the plethora of iPad apps out there. There are a good number of apps that help teach vocabulary and the basics of various world languages. One developer that my son likes (for Chinese–Mandarin) is 2Kids.

5. Keep it fun. This can be tough sometimes because learning a language isn’t easy. However, one very fun part of knowing a second language is the ability to use it with one or two people who understand it and others who don’t. When I started learning Spanish in middle school, my friend and I would mix in some Spanish when talking on the phone so our parents couldn’t understand. There are also language camps, particularly in the summer, which is a great resource.

What language(s) do you speak? If you could learn another language, what would you choose to learn?