Ask ten students why they chose to study a foreign language, and you’ll get ten different answers.
“My best friend’s mom was from Germany, and she would always curse at us in German, so I decided I wanted to learn German so I could understand what she was calling us,” joked Sarah Ober, a German major in her senior year. “I went to Germany barely able to put two words together, and not able to understand anything anyone said to me, and came back with a much better understanding of the language, and a deeper appreciation of German culture. I fell in love with Germany because of its rich history, because of the people and the customs. And the beer and food!”
Most students consider taking a foreign language during their college career, but the many choices can be daunting, especially at Boise State, which offers ten languages—more than any college in Idaho. Making the right choice can be based on practical concerns like its marketability and difficulty, or more subjective reasons such as a love of art or simply thinking it sounds pretty. So which one is right for you?
According to Teresa Boucher, chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, all languages offered—American Sign Language, Arabic, Basque, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Latin—have their merits.
“I think of the ten languages we offer as my ten children,” Boucher said. “I would not want to play favorites.”
“I don’t know that I would try to convince anyone to choose one language over another,” said senior Dory Hammersley, a teaching major minoring in French. “They’re all lovely and I have many friends who have studied other languages than French whose experience has been as amazing as mine. I would just say to learn a language.”
Some students are drawn to a language because they’ve been told it’s easier to learn.
“French and Spanish are considered among the easiest foreign languages to learn for English speakers, whereas Arabic and Mandarin are considered among the most difficult,” said Dr. Kim Carter, a lecturer in modern languages. “The biggest surprise is that French is not harder than Spanish.”
German, while not the most difficult of languages, can be a bit trickier.
“I thought I could pick up languages fairly easily, but German has proved to be very difficult,” Ober said. “Reading and writing, for me, is not a problem, as I can actually see what I’m writing, fix any grammatical mistakes, and move on. Speaking, though, and understanding Germans when they are speaking is not as easy as I would have hoped. And after speaking with other students who are working towards fluency in other languages, I’ve found that learning any language is difficult, not just German. I think several students choose to learn a language other than German because German is intimidating. For instance, the German word for ‘merger’ is der Unternehmenszusammenschluss. But I’ve found that people are often impressed when they find out you can speak German because not very many people do, and once you understand how their massively long words are formed, it makes them less threatening.”
Despite its difficulty, enrollment in Arabic has doubled since it was first offered. Many students who plan to enlist in the military at some point have found that knowing Arabic can open up opportunities for them professionally.
Much of Mandarin Chinese’s difficulty stems from its use of Chinese characters, but this is considered a bonus to students who appreciate it as an artistic challenge. The same can be said of
“Japanese can be a very tough language to learn, and it does require a lot of time and dedication,” said Kaylee Del Rio, a history major in her senior year. “It is a challenge, but it’s also extremely rewarding.”
“For English speakers, it would be difficult for them to start learning Japanese because of characters Japanese people use, like Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji (Chinese characters) in writing the sentences,” said Tetsuya Ehara, who teaches Japanese at Boise State. “Pronunciation of Japanese is easy though, especially if you speak Spanish.”
Hammersley is quick to point out that no language is easy to learn, and only time and dedication will bring success.
“It takes a lot of work to learn a language,” Hammersley said. “To really feel comfortable with it, you have to be willing to immerse yourself as much as you can—talk to your classmates in it outside of class, talk to yourself, read books, listen to music, study abroad or travel if you can. Even after seven years of study, I feel like I’ll never quite be fluent. However, I wouldn’t say that the actual language classes take too much more work than any other class. It tends to take more time for me to read or write something in French than it would in English, but from what I’ve seen the professors are aware of that and plan accordingly.”
Despite the difficulty of learning, many students choose to study a second language to improve their job prospects upon graduation. In terms of sheer numbers, Spanish is usually the first option that comes to mind.
By 2050, the United States will be the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, according to Luis Eduardo Gomez, a Spanish professor at Boise State. In addition, Spanish is the third most common language used on websites (680 million), behind English (one billion) and Mandarin Chinese (980 million). Spanish and American Sign Language are often beneficial in occupations such as health professions, education and interpretation. A quick job search in the newspaper will show just how popular the demand for Spanish speakers is in Idaho, as well as how much of a pay increase it can offer.
According to Albert Parayre, who plans to teach Spanish after graduation, 30 percent of the Boise area population speaks Spanish.
Korean, surprisingly, is proving valuable in the field of engineering.
“The Colleges of Education and Engineering have forged ties with universities in South Korea, so there are many opportunities for Boise State students to continue their study of Korean,” said Boucher.
While Latin is rarely required by prospective employers, it is still vital in areas such as law and medicine. Students of philosophy, religion and literature will also find that Latin enables them to better understand what they are learning, and give them access to readings that non-Latin-speaking students can’t understand. Musicians also find reading and speaking Latin to be helpful.
While not spoken locally as much as Spanish, French is spoken on five continents, and is one of only two official working languages (the other being English) of the United Nations, UNESCO, NATO and the International Olympic Committee. It’s the official language of 33 countries, second only to English. That’s a powerful reason to consider the language.
“Recent Boise State French majors have secured full-time employment in the Treasure Valley as translators/interpreters for international corporations and French teachers in area high schools, while others have gone on to pursue graduate studies in fields such as French, linguistics and medicine, or traveled to France to teach English through the French Ministry of Education,” said Mariah Devereux Herbeck, associate professor of French.
“With approximately 2,400 U.S. companies with offices in France generating nearly a quarter of a million jobs, and, as the third most frequently-spoken non-English language in the United States, French is useful the world over,” added Dr. Kim Carter-Cram, a lecturer in the Modern Languages department.
German also offers a huge boost to résumés as one of the strongest countries in Europe economically. And in addition to job prospects, German can offer educational opportunities. Ober notes that the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has many grants and scholarships and research fellowships available for students from the United States who want to study abroad.
“Right now there is a huge push for American students to pursue their academics in Germany, and the German government is making it easy for those students to apply, find money, and move abroad,” Ober said. “ I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Students looking for a particularly unique challenge can take advantage of Boise State’s Basque program. Boise State is home to the only Basque language school in the United State, and the Basque language is tightly connected to the history and fabric of Idaho and the American West.
“Students often comment on how appreciative Basque speakers in the Basque country and in Boise are when they try to address them in Basque,” said Nere Lete, who teaches Basque. “There are less than one million speakers of Basque in the world, and every single student and new speaker counts!”
Speaking Basque might not seem like a valuable skill from a professional standpoint at first glance, but it has certainly benefited Lete.
“I have translated and adapted scripts for television productions and private businesses in the Basque country and the United States,” Lete said. “I have interpreted for Basque government officials visiting Idaho. I have worked also for Basque television as a voice-over actress and as a puppeteer.”
The most glamorous aspect of foreign language is, for many students, the prospect of traveling abroad and understanding people of other nationalities and their cultures. Japanese, in particular, has become a favorite among lovers of both history and anime, and Boise State students have ample opportunities to practice Japanese language skills.
“Boise State has a strong connection to Hosei University in Tokyo, so it is easy to find a Japanese conversation partner on campus,” said Boucher. “Many students of Japanese choose to study abroad at Hosei, which, incidentally, also has blue turf on their football field. It makes Boise State students feel right at home.”
The one thing every language student and instructor agrees upon is the value of learning a second language, regardless of which one it is.
“As I learned Japanese and took culture classes, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was becoming more susceptible to changes in my world view,” said Del Rio. “I became more open-minded and less quick to judge. I understood and embraced differences between American and Japanese culture. As you become more vested in cultural studies, you find yourself adopting new outlooks on life.”
“Knowing a second language not only keeps our minds alert in ways that surpass the monolingual brain, but significantly helps to ward off diseases such as Alzheimer’s, makes people more successful job searchers and on average rewards them with a higher salary as compared to those who know only one language,” added Devereux Herbeck.
“I think that the future in business is a globalization of the market,” agreed Parayre, who was born and raised in Europe. “This means that you have to be able to communicate. If you do not speak the language you cannot do that. Most of the people that were born in Europe like me speak more than two languages.”
As for the future, Nere Lete has a dream. “I hope that someday the student section at Boise State football games will cheer for the Broncos in all the languages we teach at BSU!”