There’s an old joke about foreign languages: “If you speak three languages, you’re trilingual. If you speak two languages, you’re bilingual. If you speak one language, well then you’re probably an American.”
It’s not a very patriotic joke, but it’s almost true. It is a socially accepted fact that Americans are known for only speaking English. Some call this stubborn, but others say that learning an entirely new language is just too hard, especially as you get older. But many MSU students become fluent in a new language within a few years. [language]
“I started kind of liking it, although at first I hated it,” mathematics junior Angela Olandese said, who has been studying Spanish since 8th grade. “It gets easier as you go on.”
Many students start learning a new language because it’s a school requirement. However, most high schools that have language requirements only call for two or three years of language classes, which sadly doesn’t guarantee any fluency. But a good percentage of these students continue studying the language as an elective.
“My high school only offered French and Spanish, and since I already had a bit of a head-start on French, I went that route,” French junior Brandi Klotz said. “After my first year of high school French, I kept studying it because it became a goal of mine to speak another language, and French just sounds cool.”
There are many ways to make learning a second language easier. Flash cards and Post-Its on household objects are the obvious choices. But some people believe that becoming immersed in that language leads to better retention. Obviously throwing yourself into an entirely new culture with no previous knowledge of the language isn’t the best idea, but around East Lansing, you could find a ‘language buddy.’ Microbiology and molecular genetics graduate student Christina Harzman recommends finding a conversation partner.[phrases]
“There are so many international students on campus, it’s impossible not to find one that speaks that language,” Harzman said. Harzman has been speaking Spanish since she was 12, when she lived in Mexico. For her, becoming immersed in the language helped her to learn it.
For some students, there are more unusual ways of learning the language.
“If you associate bad words with [foreign] words, you will never forget them,” said Olandese.
The best part about knowing a second language is the chances that you’re given to use it. MSU has a huge selection of study abroad programs that give students the opportunity to observe entirely different cultures all over the world. Harzman has visited over 20 countries. But learning the language for a classroom and for an international trip are two different things.
“The most important phrases to learn are ‘thank you’ and ‘where is the bathroom,’” Harzman said. “Knowing phrases like ‘I am cold’ are important because it shows your needs, so others can help you. You’d be surprised how much your body language helps.”
Being absolutely fluent isn’t a necessity when visiting a foreign country. In Western European countries and in parts of Mexico you can get by with a general understanding, because tourist traffic is high and the locals often speak English. But this doesn’t mean you should go without any knowledge at all.
“It’s most efficient to have a basic understanding,” mathematics graduate student Joerg Enders said. “Use the language as far as you can.”
In places where Americans aren’t so well accepted, it’s a good idea to conform to the culture as much as you can. It helps to know, at the very least, key phrases. “You should learn some basics in vocabulary and grammar,” said Klotz. “It will make things easier on yourself while traveling, and you won’t be criticized as much or as severely as the ‘stupid American tourist,’ which is a very cruel stereotype.”
But some students are worried about the “ugly American” stereotype overseas. Recent events, namely the war in Iraq, have made acceptance of Americans difficult, especially in places like Europe. “Recent conflict has stereotyped us negatively,” says Harzman. “But if you have the courage to try, you can have a good dialogue.”
“If you think about it, it makes sense to learn something before going to different countries,” said Klotz. “After all, we criticize foreigners who come here and don’t know English, saying things like, ‘if you come to our country, you speak our language.’ It should go both ways.”
It’s strange to think that other people around the world do not have the same ideas on language as America does. Joerg Enders, for example, was born and raised in Germany. For Enders and his classmates, it was a requirement to learn English. This is not uncommon for European schools to require students to learn languages other than their national language. Even in Canada, it’s unusual to find someone that doesn’t have a general understanding of French.
“In [most parts] of America, you can travel 1000 miles north and 1000 miles south, and it’s still the same language,” noted Enders.
When you think about it, it’s odd that in America, where there is no designated national language, we do not require all students to learn another language. Logic would say that students should have a decent understand of Spanish, seeing as how Hispanics are the largest minority in the country today.
Speaking a second language does more than give you the opportunity to visit other countries. Knowledge of a foreign language can open many doors for college students. More and more businesses are asking for bilingual employees to serve as representatives overseas and close international deals. Having that extra language on your resumé can be helpful, especially for government jobs. In some states, teachers are required to know both English and Spanish. Most EMS dispatch officers have at least a general knowledge of Spanish, as do police officers and fire fighters.
With technology and transportation expanding every day, it’s no secret that the world is getting smaller. Although knowing a second language isn’t a written requirement for all Americans (yet), one can’t help but note that eventually everyone will have to know a second language to get by in this country, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of excluding people because of their language, we can start including people. Nature dictates that the language barrier must fall.
Help can be found at the MSU College of Arts and Letters website ( and at the National Capital Language Resource Center site (

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