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Importance of foreign languages

Published:Sunday | March 24, 2019 | 12:00 AMTimothy Simmonds - Contributor

Recently, I was at the National Art Gallery for a Spanish course dubbed focuses on Art and Society: Spain, Latin America and the Caribbean. I had gone to the historical galleries, particularly because I was also studying African Diaspora in the West. As I approached the displays, I was greeted by several ancient maps with obsolete names that gradually evolved in detail from one frame to the next.

At that moment, it dawned on me that our foreign language heritage remains a relic, merely embodied by old cartography and architecture in Jamaica, which engenders little or no artistic growth for the evolution of language acquisition. There, I began to note the dwindling embrace for our out of many one culture, sparked by a dissipating language heritage.

Undoubtedly, foreign language acquisition is a vital tool needed for the longevity of all cultural and economic facets of life. However, language acquisition is often frowned upon as being more of a theoretical discourse than a practical, much-needed skill. This is one of the many preconceived misconceptions that foreign language instructors strive to dispel while having to deconstruct mental blocks towards foreign language learning.

At the University of the West Indies (UWI), Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, we are able to independently strike up eloquent conversations on intriguing issues like the vibrancy of multilingualism or singing Sly Mongoose in Cuba.

At the last staging of UWI Research Days, the department was granted the opportunity to showcase a riveting documentary that was subtitled by final year language majors under the guidance of graduate students.

The documentary, Iván García: Cuando el teatro se hizo hombre (Iván García: When Theatre Became Man), exemplified one of the many creative ways lecturers apply practicality to foreign language studies while stimulating students’ minds and creativity.

The completion of this and similar projects will see several students becoming certified in subtitling. Perhaps the next subtitles you read during a foreign film on Netflix may very well be the work of students and graduates from the University of the West Indies.

The Department of Modern Languages and Literatures offers courses in French, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish; encompassing film studies, comparative literature, subtitling, cultural studies, international relations, and hospitality and tourism management, among other discourses.

Greater success

In today’s global economy, knowledge of a foreign language is tantamount to greater success in safeguarding employment, networking, travel, and leisure. Through pursuing foreign languages, students have the opportunity of travelling, teaching, and securing scholarships abroad.

Fortunately, I was awarded the opportunity to study at the University of Valladolid, Spain.

While in Europe, I was able to bask in European customs and experience le bon vivant – ‘the good life’ or ‘culture’ as they say.

Consequently, we were able to transcend our Caribbean history textbooks, having gone to investigate much-talked-about museums such as the Louvre, explore and become lost on regal properties like that of Versailles, and the Alcázar of Segovia, where Queen Isabella, wife of King Ferdinand, lived, during the Columbus exploration era. That however, is a conversation to be had on another day.

Prospective students have said that while foreign language acquisition is fun and provides better job opportunities, they receive little motivation from faculty outside of the humanities.

They also said that prior knowledge of the language, or languages, they wish to pursue is mandatory, and without it, they are left to wrangle with exam pressures, demanding classes, and few contact hours.

There is, though, no stipulation of prior knowledge of any one language as a criterion for registration, and all foreign language courses are taught from the beginner’s level with at least four-six contact hours weekly.

In dealing with foreign languages, we may argue that our official language, English, is, in fact, foreign to Jamaicans.

Emphasis is often placed on perfecting the language’s use, and many fail to recognise that learning English is often met with similar issues when learning a ‘foreign language.’

For instance, through grammar usage, we can observe that many Jamaicans are grappling with English, and so we can understand why they would opt to shy away from learning a second language. However, to tackle this fear, we should expose ourselves to language studies and become adept in understanding the structure of our official, native, and foreign languages.

Have you ever considered how impactful it would be if more Jamaicans were learning foreign languages? Consider tourism, for example, which plays a fundamental role in bolstering our economy, but even with this knowledge, instead of learning foreign languages, we force our tourists to speak English simply because we refuse to make an effort to learn their language(s).

Should we challenge ourselves to learn other languages, we would be better able to cater for the needs of the global citizen. Moreover, increased foreign language competence should see an upsurge in the number of tourist arrivals we receive annually.

If Jamaica is to experience greater economic growth, placing a higher value on foreign language learning can and will inevitably transform our reality, bridge gaps, and strengthen bonds among other nations.


- Timothy Simmonds is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish with a minor in Journalism at the University of the West Indies, Mona. This article is one in a series that seeks to promote and highlight the impact of the arts and humanities on the individual’s personal development and career path. Please send feedback to fhe@uwimona.edu.jm.