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Learning new languages opens up the world

ASU professor says being multilingual can change opinions, perspectives


Open book with words in a non-English language.
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December 04, 2023

December is National Learn A Foreign Language Month. But what does that mean?

Does it mean being able to order dessert in a restaurant? Or engage in a conversation? Or give a speech to a group of people?

ASU News talked to Danko Sikpa, a professor of Slavic languages and applied linguistics in the School of International Letters and Cultures, about the benefits of learning a second language and how to go about it.

Sipka is proficient in English, Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian, and also knows some Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Spanish and French.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why is it important to learn a second language?

Answer: My first motivation when studying second languages is to learn more about the cultures they serve. A language gives you an identity of its own, independent from all the identities that you get. So every new language that you will learn will give you a certain identity. You would become a member of a certain community. Those are kind of the intangible benefits that you get from learning languages. But there are also very tangible benefits. For example, if you study Indonesian, you can basically go to Bali and work.

Q: So, knowing multiple languages opens up the world in a lot of ways?

A: Yes. When I came to the United States in 1987, I was on the Fulbright Program. The Fulbright Program was kind of a cultural exchange founded by Sen. (J. William) Fulbright as an antidote for what he called the arrogance of power. He thought that wars are being waged not because of tight economic resources but because of the belief that certain nations seem to think they’re more superior than others. And he thought this cultural exchange would help. In that regard, if you’re learning another language, you get another perspective. That’s very important. You get different opinions, different points of view and, I think, (you get to) be a better citizen.

Q: Does learning a second language mean you know a few words of that language? Does it mean you can carry on a conversation? How would you define it?

A: It depends on the motivation. If you’re a scholar, you might want to read something that is written in that language. Just being able to talk to people is a benefit. I went to Kenya as a tourist, and over there, the language is Swahili. I did some very elementary learning of Swahili and was able to say hello, goodbye and thank you — that kind of stuff. In the very initial stage of language learning, you have this little game where you’re trying to recognize words that you know, even though you cannot understand the whole thing or even a part of it. So there’s kind of these fun word puzzles going on.

Q: It seems like people in European countries are more conversant in second languages than people in the U.S. Is that the case?

A: If you look at the stats, only 30% of Americans use another language. Seventy percent speak just English. If you look at comparable countries in terms of GDP (gross domestic product) in Europe, it’s flipped. Only 30% use just their own language, and 70%, typically, are multilingual, not just bilingual.

Q: Is that because it’s so easy to travel within European countries?

A: Yes, but it also has to do with the ideology. For many years, the ideology was a melting pot, and that everybody should assimilate. Now, there is kind of an understanding that our society is a solid bowl rather than a melting pot, and multilingualism is an important segment of that.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn a second language?

A: Learning a foreign language is a skill. I think it’s always a good idea to invest some time before taking a foreign language to see whether you remember things better if you see something written or hear something. By far, the most important advice would be to invest time in it. There was a professor at the University of Sarajevo who spoke many languages, and one student asked him, “How were you able to achieve that?” And he said, “I sat on my (behind) and learned.” By far, hands down, the most important predictor is time on task. Or, as this guy said, sit on your (behind). It’s not only time in class. It’s your homework activities. It’s watching news in foreign countries or going on the street and talking to people. All that is time on task. Students will learn within the walls of their classroom, but even more so on the outside.

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