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Learn a new language

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Students participate in a Spanish language class taught by Christine Thomas at Rowland Hall High School in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011.

Students participate in a Spanish language class taught by Christine Thomas at Rowland Hall High School in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

Those who tout the need for more foreign language education in the United States often point to its advantages for national security, or to how people who speak more than one language have advantages in the job market.

These are vital reasons, but the most important reason to learn a new language is much simpler, and yet more personal and profound. It broadens horizons and deepens one's understanding of other people and cultures. Each language has its own history, connected to a unique culture and world view. Learn a language and you learn to see the world a little differently — a process that is both enriching and ennobling.

Many foreign nations have understood this for years. Specifically, many Western European nations have made the study of English a priority beginning at a young age. The dominance of English in much of the world grew out of the British Empire's vast reaches and has been strengthened by American popular culture as well as economic strength. In the United States, however, interest in foreign languages seems to ebb and flow. Geographically, the United States is isolated from other cultures and languages, except for Spanish to the south. The worldwide emphasis on English has led to complacency.

Unfortunately, many universities find that language programs are among the easiest to cut when money is tight. Fortunately, this is not the case in Utah, where interests in foreign languages typically is high, thanks in part to the many young people who serve foreign missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Still, there is much more that Utahns can do to emphasize the need for more early language training, and there certainly is much more the nation as a whole can do to get Americans out of their English-only shells.

The importance of language training to national security is well-documented. When terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. intelligence was sorely lacking in Arabic language aptitude. Not only did this hamper the nation's ability to gather information about the enemy's plans, it hampered the ability to understand the cultural assumptions and reasons behind the attacks.

In 2005, a Defense Department report recommended, "immediate … engagement by public, private and government agencies to improve the nation's foreign language and cultural competency." This has been largely ignored.

From an economic standpoint, foreign-language education is even more apparent, especially to many students and young entrepreneurs. Emerging trade markets in China, India and elsewhere demand language skills in order to compete. This is likely why Mandarin study has increased almost 200 percent in the last three years, according to the Department of Education.

Unfortunately, the department also found that only 32 percent of U.S. students in grades 6 through 12 are enrolled in a foreign-language course.

The Internet, portable MP3 players and other devices offer unprecedented opportunities to learn a new language. As with most learning, it's easier at an early age. But at any age, the study of a language brings many rewards.