Why the Mission Matters
By Bill Rivers, Executive Director, Joint National Committee for Languages | Published: September 11, 2018
Last month, I had the happy opportunity and great honor to speak at the rededication of the Concordia Language Villages Peace Site. The rededication serves as a call to action for everyone, and underlines the mission of the Villages.
The Villages are remarkable. More than 10,000 students of all ages pass through these camps throughout the year, learning one of fifteen languages. As the Internet shrinks the world’s distances, and English and Chinese spread across the globe—in an age of rapid and ever-expanding globalization— why take the time and effort to pursue another language?
When I’m asked that question, I try to frame it concretely on the individual learner because it’s easy to point to language learning as force for good in society. The recent report of the Commission on Language Learning of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences lays out a clear case at the national level: languages matter to national security, job growth and social justice. Even as the world tacks to regional monolingualism, we need more Americans with meaningful proficiency in other languages to meet a wide array of national needs. Learning another language bridges barriers, bolsters national security and, in short, builds up our national character in a comprehensive way that few things can.
I am often struck by how hard it is for me personally to understand the perspective of someone who is monolingual. Speaking French since early childhood, learning French and then Russian at school and in college, working as a translator, interpreter and teacher, and living and working overseas have all changed how I view the world.
Because why wouldn’t you learn another language? The benefits of bilingualism on an individual level are nearly unbelievable. As part of the Commission’s work, two colleagues of mine, Professors Judy Kroll and Paola Dussias, summarized these benefits in a concise white paper. I would like to list just a few here:
- Being bilingual and using your languages throughout adulthood delays the onset of the symptoms of dementia and improves multiple areas of mental ability, compared to monolinguals.
- Bilinguals earn, on average, 2% more than their monolingual peers, based on data from the U.S. Census going back at least to 1980; compounded annually over a 45-year career, that’s 244% more than monolinguals.
- Bilingual high schoolers (however, whenever, wherever they acquired their language skills) graduate at higher rates, matriculate to college at higher rates and graduate there sooner.
All this resonates on Capitol Hill, where I spend time advocating language learning, as well as in the parts of the business community where languages are essential to deal with diverse domestic and international markets. The Joint National Committee for Languages is proud to count Concordia Language Villages among our members, and the support of the Villages at the national level helps us make the case for languages to the powers that be in Washington, D.C. Their mission is our mission, and it matters more than ever today.
But as we break down the benefits of bilingualism and language learning, I think we miss a much bigger point about how we make our case to America at large.
When I was 18, or 25, I thought it would be easy to see another point of view, to understand the feelings of someone whose background and experiences are very different from mine. But at this point of my life, at almost 50, I am at least aware that others’ experiences, values and worldviews can be (and indeed often are) very different than mine. That understanding was unlocked by learning two other languages.
For the students of the Villages, learning another language unlocks that profound understanding that others do differ, and in knowing this, they will be better able to change the world for the better as they change and come to understand one another—and that is the hope we have for the Villages in the many years to come.
About the Author
Dr. Bill Rivers has more than 25 years’ experience in culture and language for economic development, national security, policy development and advocacy. Dr. Rivers has also taught Russian, language policy, and second language acquisition at the University of Maryland. Before joining JNCL-NCLIS as executive director in 2012, he served as Chief Scientist at Integrated Training Solutions, Inc., where he focused on strategic planning, management, and advanced technologies for language and culture programs in the public sector.comments powered by Disqus