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The Challenges and Benefits around Language Learning

As most of you know, we moved to Portugal in March of this year. I’m attempting to learn Portuguese right now and, man, is it hard!  Having never learned a conversational language (I took 4 years of Latin in high school), this is not coming naturally to me!  Though I’m far away from being able to speak (beyond pleasantries) or understand (people talk so fast!), my reading is improving a lot. I get really excited when I can read things in the grocery store, menus, or parts of emails.  I can’t wait until I can communicate somewhat effectively, if only basic communication.  We need A2 proficiency to apply for citizenship in 5 years. This is just one step up from beginner, so I’m confident I can get there. My goal is to take (and pass) the test by spring of 2022. By then, we may know our longer term plan and I can either continue my Portuguese to get to a level beyond basic communication or start learning the language of the country we intend to eventually move to.

Suffice it to say, I’ve been thinking about language learning a lot! I have so much admiration for people who are bilingual! I can’t imagine being able to switch between languages with such ease!  It’s also amazing how quickly some people pick up languages. My nephew spent the first six years of his life in Turkey. He spoke English, Turkish, and even Greek (he went to a Greek preschool) at the age of 5. He is 10 now,  living in Lisbon, and has on more than one occasion schooled me on the basics of the Portuguese language. Covid “bubbles” prevented Ellie from taking Portuguese at school this year but, even without formal classes, she is quickly learning various phrases from her friends. I don’t doubt that when she starts taking classes, it will come much easier to her than it has for me. Sigh.

Sometimes I hear from people (usually in those facebook ad comments I’ve mentioned before) that seem almost offended by the suggestion that students don’t need proficiency in another language to go to schools in Europe. Some insist that students need proficiency for day to day life. Or they think that we are suggesting that language learning isn’t important. Let’s unpack this a bit today.

The first thing to recognize is that English-taught degree programs don’t exist with the purposed of  accommodating or appealing to us at Americans. Honestly, they don’t even exist as something specifically for native English-speakers.  Whether good/bad, right/wrong, English is the most widely spoken language in the world. Therefore, English-taught programs exist to accommodate ALL international students in the world who have a defined level of English proficiency.

Living in Europe has made me realize the importance of both bilingualism and the function of a common language.  Just like someone might live in New Jersey and spend just as much time in New York, someone can live in a border city in Spain and work, eat, or socialize in France.  This person would need to know France and Spanish or another language that people are likely to know.  That language in the world right now is English.  The use of a lingua franca is especially evident in the EU where, even with the UK leaving, English will remain one of three official languages in the EU Institutions. Interestingly, even without including the UKEnglish is spoken by 44% of the EU population, while Germany is spoken by 36% and French is spoken by 29%.

It’s certainly possible in many countries to get by without knowing the language. Countries in Northern Europe in particular have extremely high English proficiency. That said, I personally think it is a sign of respect to, at a bare minimum, know things like “Excuse me” for when you bump into someone, “Do you speak English” so it’s not viewed as an assumption or entitlement, and pleasantries like please and thank you.  Certainly, life is easier when you go further than that.  While the google translate plug in has been a game changer for me, there are certain translations that are a bit odd. I remember looking at a menu online with an item that translated as “fingernails”.  I was tempted to order it just out of curiosity! Knowing things like food words and numbers has helped me tremendously, both at the grocery store (there’s nothing worse than standing there trying to get the camera translate app to pick up the words on the label),  the farmers market, and when ordering at restaurants.

International students in Europe have a large number of options for language learning. Some programs have language classes built into the curriculum, though it’s not usually the language of the country they are living in. There are many programs that have a regional focus-whether it’s a business or global studies type program-that include langue learning. For instance, students in Maastricht University’s Global Studies program can choose from Arabic, Chinese Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish. Students in all programs at Bocconi University must learn two languages during their studies and need to achieve B2 in one and B1 in the other by the time they graduate. These classes are built into the curriculum and include choices of French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and German.

Outside of the curriculum, the university almost always offers some sort of opportunities for language learning. Some universities provide an online language class for incoming first year international students.  Leiden University, for instance, offers a five week course and the “lessons are based on realistic scenarios from the life of an international student at Leiden University.”  I think this is really key, as the students are leaning some of the specific phrases that they will actually use in their day to day life as a student (which are, different than the phrases that I as a middle aged woman would use in my day to day life!).

Some universities offer formal language classes for their international students. Others have regular language cafe events which allow students to practicing a language with a native speaker of that language while also helping that student practice English. Other schools have Language Buddy programs for new international students, which can help with both language and culture.

Of course, online resources have come such a long ways!  I remember when we used to buy language programs to help us with language when we would travel. These were almost never effective for us!  Now, though, I’m using an online resource called Practice Portuguese that’s incredibly helpful! For me, the regular use of this program has been far more effective than the more structured online classes I’ve taken! Finding European Portuguese specific resources has been tricky, since most are focused on Brazilian Portugueses, but there are a ton of others for more common languages like Drops, Mondly, Memrise, and Duolingo.

So, other than making day to day life a bit easier, what are the benefits around language learning? For one, it makes integrating into local life instead of just international student life easier.  Certainly, if you are at a group event with students from various part of the world, the common language (English) will most likely be used.  If, however, you are at a party where the majority of the people are from the country you are studying in, they will most likely be speaking their own first language.  Knowing the language opens up social opportunities and social communication with other students.

Additionally, language proficiency improves your job prospects. Of course, it increases the pool of jobs you are qualified to  apply for, but also helps you even when applying for jobs that don’t require any other language. This interesting article cites research that shows that knowing more than one language leads to a “have a greater capacity to understand people from a wider variety of backgrounds, and also have a better understanding of themselves”, reduces decision bias,  makes people better problem-solvers and “better able to function optimally in chaotic situations”. These are soft skills that employers are looking for! Not to mention the fact that language learning in and of itself is an achievement that will help the applicant stand out!

I would guess that Sam is probably close to B1 in both French and Arabic and A1 for Dutch. His goal is to get to B2 proficiency in both French and Arabic by the time he graduates and A2 for Dutch. This would open up a number of job opportunities in many different countries.  Further, having that level of proficiency will allow him to speak to people in their own native language (beyond pleasantries..), and provide him with a greater understanding of the world. I too look forward to experiencing some of the less tangible benefits to language learning!

Ready to start exploring the incredible options in Europe? Our membership prices will go up in January, so join our Master’s or Bachelor’s membership now to lock in 2020 rates!

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