Is Learning a Foreign Language still an Option?

I recently read an article on HuffPost about "Making Language Learning a National Priority"... and it made me wonder.

Does language learning have a chance these days? I'm not talking about what schools may offer, what school districts may require, what carreer improvements and salary boosts may result. I am talking about the chances "language learning" has, in order for it to be relevant to all of us.

When I was a student, I learned (or rather, tried to learn) Arabic. It was fun, but very tough. I had a great teacher who was able to make learning fun, especially a language. For Mohammed, my instructor, learning Arabic was not so much about studying grammar, memorizing vocabulary or working through boring lessons.

Mohammed had the goal of making us understand the environment a language was spoken in. So I learned a lot about the city of Tunis and North Africa. I learned about how to get there, how to leave, where places in the city are, how to order my food, how to make sure that there were no onions in it (I absolutely hate onions and leaving them out of food in North Africa was quite a challenge).

I learned to understand what people in the streets were talking and arguing about, and finally, I was able to follow the TV evening news. It took quite a while to get to that point, but in the end I had learned more about the country, its culture and its people than I would ever have learned in a typical language lab or in school.

Mohammed was able to make us understand what language was all about. Not just the simple/sample question from the phrase book about where the nearest train station was or how to count in a foreign language. He put it in context. And if you'll allow me to do this here, I want to thank you - Mohammed - for being one of the best teachers I ever had.

Back to the present. I live in a city that is quite multilingual. It's fun to see and hear people speak all sorts of languages. About half of the people living in San Diego speak Spanish, and then there are all the visitors to this beautiful city.  They bring their languages with them and they try to communicate with those who don't understand their language. It somehow seems to work.

But I also catch myself expecting that a foreigner asks me for directions in English. I just take it for granted, because I am at home here and they are the visitors. And then I travel elsewhere and I ask for directions in English although I am the foreigner there, and the person I am asking is not speaking English as his/her mother tongue. I just expect them to understand my question and get impatient if they don't. It's so much easier to have someone learn my language than having to learn theirs.

Now, you could argue that English has sort of become the common language and everyone speaks it to some extent. Most English speakers like to believe that - and they are dead wrong, as well as terribly lazy.

My mother tongue is German, I have lived in the US for a long time and feel that I can communicate in English fairly well. My wonderful wife is French, but since we both live in the US, we speak English at home. When we have her friends visit, they almost always switch to French. Unfortunately for me, Mohammed taught Arabic, not French. That left my French skills in poor shape and my communication with many dear friends hampered by needing to resort to a common third language.

The issue of Language Learning reminds me of the days when in order to get your driving license you had to be able to handle a car with manual transmission. Then came automatic transmissions and no one needed to learn "stick shift" any longer. Is learning a language other than your mother tongue becoming less and less  important with the appearance of instant translation via one's smart phone? And will it ultimately die out, just like stick shifting?

There is this danger. With so many daily tasks being commodities, why would language be any different? We use Siri or Cortana to ask questions, we are aware that Skype will soon be offering the instant translation of online conversations. It's convenient, no doubt. And if it is just simple information we are looking for, it works perfectly well.

The technology has been around for a while, either as a futuristic gadget in Star Trek, or as one in our current mobile phones. Convenient.

For some, language is like math - formal and predictable. It works perfectly for the direct exchange of information. "What time is it?", "Where is the nearest restaurant?" can easily be translated into another language, and the responses can be translated back into one's own language. Teaching a language that way isn't going to work any longer and no one wants to waste time on tasks that computers have gotten to be really good at.

What's missing is the context in which communication happens.

If language learning is to be taken serious it has to include more than just vocabulary and grammar. Semantics are easily left behind. Wikipedia's definition: "Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, like words, phrases, signs, and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotation. Linguistic semantics is the study of meaning that is used for understanding human expression through language..."

We are happy with the basic meaning, we don't look past that and - therefore - miss out on a lot of information. Communication in a foreign language on the level of fast food.

So what can or should language learning accomplish?

It has to make you aware that language represents the way people interact and the context in which they live their daily lives. You are learning to understand how they interact and ultimately, you learn to interact with them. And once you have learned that, you will understand people, not just words.

Teach kids and adults that language is not the only way to understand others. Teach them that there is more beyond the horizon. Teach them to be comfortable amongst others first and the desire to understand the others happens automatically.

Imagine being a traveler in a foreign country. Unless you are in a shielded environment - think fully climatized bus in India - you need to interact with the people around you. You want to understand!

There's your motive! Now, find the means. Or, if you are a teacher, give your students a motive and then the means. Not just a phrase book.

And if those of you who speak Arabic hope you can converse with me in Arabic from now on - it unfortunately won't work. It's been way too long since I last used it and no language stands a chance against time without practice. What I still have - however - is a deep appreciation for a fascinating language, and that... I won't forget.

Your thoughts?