I remember the first time I had to speak English to a native speaker. I was 16, about to meet my host family who would accommodate me for the next six weeks and waited to go through immigration at a giant airport in the US. I was nervous and stumbled over my own words when answering a few questions from the immigration officer. I remember thinking, “This is difficult. Will it ever get easier?”
More than ten years later, I am learning to teach modern foreign languages at CTTC. Now, I often hear students say aloud the thought I had when I was 16, “why is learning a language so difficult?” In their frustration, students ask me why exactly they need to learn another language. With English being commonly used across the world, I understand that question.
My answer to that question varies depending on the student asking the question. For the purpose of this article, I will summarise. Starting with the most obvious fact: languages are gateways to different cultures. When we speak to other people in their native language, we understand beliefs, customs and traditions, stories and jokes differently because often they are deeply engrained in a language. Language is the key that decodes cultures, traditions and beliefs. Learning a language can also be a key to career success: when we are able to move globally, we become valuable assets to companies because we might be the missing puzzle piece in a new project in a foreign country, where speaking the native language overcomes barriers. Actually, talking about puzzling: we might get better at it, because studies show that learning, a language trains cognitive skill, which help us to focus better on issues at hand.
I sometimes tell my students about my own experiences. Searching for the bus station in Chile, talking to a taxi driver about elections in Colombia or standing at an airport in the US when I was 16. Millions of young people do these things. What they all have in common is the bravery to step outside their comfort zone – and this bravery starts in the language classroom. When we teach pupils a new language, we give them the invaluable asset to step into a world that has so much to offer and is in need of bright minds that push boundaries and overcome barriers. Not only for themselves but also for others in this world. In the classroom, lesson by lesson, language teachers give their students the tools they need to decode this world to make it their own.