CAN TAKING A WORLD LANGUAGE SAVE A CHILD’S LIFE?

Kirsten Halling, OFLA Public Relations and Advocacy Chair
Professor/Chair, Wright State University

World language teachers can easily recite the multitude of personal and professional benefits of language learning – stronger communication skills, better understanding of English grammar and syntax, the ability to think on your toes and creatively work within the constraints of limited vocabulary, heightened cultural awareness, improved memory function and brain flexibility, robust problem-solving skills, and the list goes on.

But can learning a language save your life? Of course, if you’re stuck in a foreign country and you need to communicate to eat and find shelter, knowing another language augments your chances for surviving and thriving. But what of those junior high and high school students who haven’t yet gone abroad? Can language learning help them navigate the tender years of self-discovery and doubt? Can learning about new cultures and different ways of thinking be a beacon of light in the darkness? For some children, the answer is clear, as evidenced by the following testimony from an Ohio French teacher. 

“I was raised in a conservative community in Ohio. Don’t get me wrong, I love many of my northern Ohio traditions, my family, and all of our agricultural roots. That said, the negative stereotypes and prejudices surrounding people of other races, cultures, languages, and ideas were often prevalent. While I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I was also gay and sensed that I didn’t quite fit in this place where many saw the “other” as bad, dangerous, or inferior. It was thanks to my high school French classes that I discovered attitudes that embraced differences as something to respect and find full of beauty and value. I also realized that thanks to these classes, I had an escape from some of the prejudicial realities I regularly experienced. 

Did French save my life? Perhaps. Suicide rates and criminality for people who feel rejected, who feel like they don’t really fit in, or who have low self-esteem certainly seem to be high. I’m not here to quote statistics. What I can say is this: I remember thinking as a kid that some people had less value than others because of the language they spoke, the color of their skin, the composition of their family, or their sexual orientation. I certainly feel like the foreign language and culture studies at the core of my life saved me by making me a more compassionate human being and allowing me to have a successful career. What more could one hope for in a high school education?”

In a society where an eloquent co-author must STILL remain anonymous to protect their identity due to a very real fear of reprisals, world language classes are more necessary than ever. Far from the verb drills of yesteryear, language classes open the doors to new ways of thinking, incorporating culture into every lesson and teaching respect for all cultural practices and points of view. We can only imagine the relief “different” children must feel as they learn that the world is not narrow and confining, but diverse and exciting. In today’s curriculum, we may look towards the world language classroom as the cornerstone of a multicultural and inclusive education, bringing with it a world of opportunities that might just save a child’s life.

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