Eric L. Einspruch
Principal, ELE Consulting, LLC
March 4, 2020
I was recently asked to comment on the value of learning world languages. My perspective is informed primarily by my study of Mandarin Chinese at the Confucius Institute at Portland State University (CIPSU), where I have taken language classes, music classes, and received tutoring since 2011. I have also twice participated in a two-week summer language program at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. As markers of having achieved a bit of progress, I have passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Level 4 written exam, the Hanyu Shuiping Kouyu Kaoshi Intermediate Level oral exam, and the Chinese Central Conservatory of Music Yangqin (扬琴, Chinese Dulcimer) Level 2 exam.
The Value of World Language Study
My comments, given in Chinese and prepared with help from one of my teachers, are provided below. I begin by providing a brief self-introduction: I am an independent researcher and program evaluator, an adjunct professor at Portland State University [in the College of Urban and Public Affairs and in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health]. I am the Chair of the CIPSU Advisory Board [Editor’s note: PSU ended its CI program in 2021], and I am a student of Chinese language and music. I then say that I want to speak to three points.
First , I comment that learning a foreign language increases our ability to make friendships and deepen cultural insights, and I provide an example of being in a Chinese garden in Suzhou and chatting in Chinese with another visitor (from China) about Suzhou and Portland Chinese gardens.
Second, I comment that learning music is a way to deepen cultural understanding. While it is good to listen to music, it is even better to learn to play music, and in learning to play one also gains a better understanding of how much effort accomplished musicians exert. Music is not bound by national borders, and can convey thoughts, feelings, and meanings beyond words.
Third, I comment that foreign language learning and cross cultural exchange improves our ability to work together to solve current global challenges.
Finally, I conclude with a closing remark thanking my teachers for their help.
Some Responses to Previous Posts by Shawn Smallman
On August 15, 2019 Professor Smallman posted On Languages and Age. In that post he commented on the value of language learning for finding a job and delaying the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. He also commented that he likes to measure his progress learning the Chinese language by taking the HSK exams. I, too, like to take these exams as a means to measure my progress. I have found, however, that even more than measuring my progress these exams help me understand how much farther I really have to go. The more I learn the more I realize how little I know; the horizon only gets ever further away. Fortunately, I find this both amusing and motivating. I also agree with the comment that languages are beautiful and learning them is fun.
On February 14, 2019 Professor Smallman posted Tools to learn Chinese, which has some great tips. With regard to a few of the comments in that post:
I, too, highly recommend the Pleco app. The Basic Bundle ($29.99 at the time of this writing) provides collection of highly valuable tools and in my opinion is well worth the price.
I, too, like the HSK books. I also like the use of supplemental materials, for example, those available from Pleco or from Cheng and Tsui.
“There are no shortcuts. You’re going to have to put in the time.” Yes, that pretty much sums it up. A little bit (at least) most every day (at least).
“Whatever tools you use, or whatever language you choose to study, just don’t stop. It’s not about becoming fluent, but about getting better. And having fun.” I think this is wise counsel, and if you keep going and having fun, fluency will follow.
One More Comment
I encourage you to use the language you are learning out in the world whenever possible. I find it both gratifying and educational to have a conversation with native speaker (or with another language learner), whether it is with someone I have just met or with someone I have known for a while. This sort of practice brings us ever closer to fulfilling a key purpose of language learning: communication and cross-cultural understanding.