OPINION: Learn a foreign language

Students taking a second language benefit; enjoy new experiences



The ability to communicate in a different language is a necessary skill in the modern world.


In my experience, learning a foreign language is a fun, rewarding challenge. I studied French in high school for three years, took a semester of Chinese and am currently on my third semester of Japanese. For one of my classes, I had to dabble in Russian for a while.

However, there is a lot that goes into learning a language. Kayo Niimi, associate professor of Japanese at WSU, said because learning a language takes time, she tries to make her classes enjoyable, so it is easier for students to stay motivated throughout the semester.

Niimi said while teaching over Zoom, some students get distracted and start doing something else. I think that may be why my current Japanese teacher asks us to please have our video on during class.

“At the very beginning level, [students] are not really thinking in Japanese,” Niimi said. “Probably thinking in English first and trying to translate. Sometimes the expressions don’t work well in Japanese, but that happens not just to English speakers.”

A lot of people may struggle to get their thoughts across in a foreign language because they’re limited by their vocabulary or sometimes the humor does not translate over well. Sarcasm, for one, is hard to portray in Japanese without sounding like you’re just being rude.

In Japanese, particles can also be hard to keep track of for some students in the beginning and sometimes it is hard for students to switch between formal and informal speech. It is, however, helpful that once you learn a conjugation pattern in Japanese most verbs will follow the pattern, minus a few irregulars.

In Niimi’s experience with English, she said there is not always a clear reason behind the variety of English conjugations for learners. I do agree that there isn’t as clear of a pattern that I can see with English.

“A lot of people are not really fluent because they are afraid of making mistakes,” Niimi said.

Niimi said she wants students to have a good balance, understanding that even native speakers make mistakes. She said students just need to keep going and not be afraid of making mistakes all the time. She said she tries to point out even small mistakes in class so students can learn from it but that it’s okay to make mistakes.

I see it as being like music, making a small mistake and moving on is better than making a mistake and freaking out over it. You can learn from the mistake after, practice that bit more, but it isn’t the end of the world.

For Japanese students learning English, Niimi said when she studied English, she took six years of it but practiced mostly reading and writing, so she couldn’t say much in English at the time. She said she wasn’t the only one who struggled and helped her realize it wasn’t her fault, necessarily, that she struggled the way she did.

“That was one of the reasons that I became a Japanese teacher, so that I can do better than what they did back then,” Niimi said. “Now, I think the education system over there made a bit of progress using different textbooks, activities and more speaking, but not significantly.”

For Niimi, she said there are a lot of rewarding things about learning another language and is currently working to teach herself Korean. She said language learning is fun, and she likes the feeling of seeing her progress, going from not understanding something to understanding it.

“Through learning a different language, you can see your culture a different way,” Niimi said.

Karen Jennings, assistant professor of German at WSU, said her students commonly struggle to be comfortable not being able to express everything they want to say right at the beginning. It’s also a struggle to realize that learning a language is something you shouldn’t cram.

“You’re going to have fun with the language and you’re going to make more progress if you take whatever you learned that day and apply,” Jennings said. “This is just a silly one, but learning to tell time, throughout the day look up at a clock and say whatever time it is in German.”

Jennings said conversation tables are often a great way for students to practice and engage with the language, alongside the fact WSU offers conversation classes as well.

I am currently enrolled in a conversation course for Japanese, and I would say it helps keep students practicing. Immersing yourself in the audio, listening to recordings of people speaking the language, or reading text can also help students if they find items at the appropriate difficulty level.

Jennings also said that she finds it humbling to be a student, such as when she took sign language, and it helps her remember how her students might feel.

German, Jennings said, like Japanese is quite phonetic and can help students with syllables and is also very patterned. There are many cognates in German as well which typically helps. However, the gender system, cases, and adjective endings can throw off students.

Niimi and Jennings both agreed that when languages have similarities, such as sentence structure, word order, distinctions between polite language and casual speech, it can be easier for a speaker of one to learn the other. German, although not the same as Japanese, also has a form of formal speech.

“What I think can be a challenge for students in speaking is not to get too hung up on all of that,” Jennings said. “It’s going to be hard to make a perfect sentence, but you can at least get yourself understood.”

Jennings also said learning another language being able to relate grammar in one language to another is helpful. Scholarly sources I have read for my second language acquisition course support this, and said that the better someone understands their own language does make a difference in learning other languages.

During a homestay in Germany, Jennings said she found a very sweet family but couldn’t speak to the parents because she didn’t know German and they didn’t know English. She said that was part of what prompted her to learn German.

Full immersion is a great way to practice. Jennings said she met friends in Germany who knew English but only spoke to her in German and helped practice. In the same way, Jennings said she only speaks English to a German friend’s daughter to help her practice.

“You learn about your own language, you learn about another culture, it’s just fun,” Jennings said.

When it comes to speaking anxiety, which is a common issue in learning a foreign language, many students including myself struggle to overcome it. In Japanese class, I get especially nervous when I am asked a question in Japanese that I don’t even know how to answer in English.

“Anxiety is a huge deal, and I have to be really mindful of that,” Jennings said. “I get it, it’s kind of terrifying.”

She said that she must get people to feel relaxed and be willing to make mistakes.

For any students who want to try learning another language, Jennings said to just take it step by step and to try their best, they may be surprised by how well they can do.