Learning a foreign language and intercultural understanding

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
May 22, 2008 / 0 comments

As an international educator and world traveler, I can't emphasize enough the importance of learning a foreign language. It is critical to both international understanding, and the ability to survive in another culture.
There are many different ways of learning a second (or third) foreign language, and what works for some might not work for others.

For myself, I took several years of Japanese in college. I did ok with it, but wasn't truly motivated to study very well.  Then, I got a job in Japan, and all of a sudden, it was extremely important for me to learn Japanese! I studied hard, but still, when I got there, I could tell that all my hard work learning Japanese hadn't really prepared me for the reality of living there.

What did I do? I still studied the language. I asked people to speak Japanese with me, even though everyone was trying themselves to improve their English by speaking it with me, a native speaker.  i lived with host families, and learned the ins and outs of age and gender-based word variations. And I practiced, practiced, practiced.

I've heard it said that you really *get* a language when you dream in that language.  I never  thought this was true, until I dreamt in Japanese (ironically, my dream took place on Lake Michigan). I was never able to read a Japanese newspaper, but was quite fluent and had such *fun* speaking Japanese, living in Japan, and glorying in the whole intercultural experience. It was so much fun, knowing the ins and outs of a language, being able to understand the garbled train announcements, and speaking as quickly as my friends and colleagues.

Later on, in France, I once was able to get along quite well by speaking Japanese - in Paris, of all places! I often wished I knew French (and am working on it, right now), but was surprised that I could speak Japanese in France and be able to understand and make myself understood. There is almost no worse feeling than not understanding the world around you. Even if you are able to pick up on cultural clues, people try to help, and your mini-travel dictionary is quite handy, it is not the same as being able to speak a language, fluently.