Learning a foreign language is an invaluable experience that can open up many doors in the business world. We’ve all heard this statement or something along these lines many times before. Have you seen how many people enroll in the Chinese language program every year? There were seven sections of CHI 101: Elementary Chinese I alone last fall for 68 students. Of course, one can explain this high enrollment as interest. But it can’t be denied that prospective employees who know how to speak to a population of over one billion people are impressive to businessmen. Even though the Princeton language programs are exemplary and prepare students to engage in business settings in conversation over topics ranging from the arts to politics, I wonder — what happened to the more simple form of human conversation that is often peppered with slang, colloquialisms and even ... dare I say it? Profanity. In order to gain fluency it is important to be able to communicate in formal situations, but the ability to interact in informal settings is important as well.
We will all enter the workplace, but we will not dwell there for the entire 24 hours of each day of our lives. And often, less formal language is necessary. Arguments, using proverbs to encourage or admonish and a general desire to avoid sounding too academic are all situations in which informal speech is used. How could a non-native speaker be able to communicate on the same level if he or she has only been taught, for example, academic Japanese or Arabic? And even if this non-native speaker does not want to use colloquial language, understanding it would still prove to be an invaluable advantage, whether in the meeting room or on a bustling boulevard in town. Fluency relies on an understanding of both the academic and the colloquial.
Furthermore, learning the colloquialisms, such as proverbs, slang, riddles, even obscenities, of a certain culture not only deepens the bond between a non-native speaker and a native speaker, but allows the non-native speaker to solidify his understanding of different components of a culture or how people of that particular culture think. And though it is difficult and might be overly idealistic to attempt to learn every single euphemism, just the endeavor alone would be beneficial. This is not a push for the syllabi of every foreign language class at the University to be restructured, but there should be more incorporation of the cultural and colloquial components of language.
The biggest counterargument might be that one could easily learn these forms of speaking while watching television, reading manga (for Japanese speakers, for example) or speaking with natives in the foreign language. While these are great tactics, the classroom provides a formal setting for students to learn these elements, go over these new grammar points through homework and quizzes and practice at language tables under the supervision of professors.
Being able to communicate in a wide range of settings not only indicates to a native speaker that one is fluent but may also indicate that this person is a human, who is able to speak in both conventional and unconventional ways. Think about English. If you are really incensed about a dispute, you might not be inclined to use million-dollar words. If you were speaking to a non-native speaker and he or she responded with advanced vocabulary, sure, you’d know that the person was smart (or pretentious, depending on who you ask), but there are many nuances that are lost because two individuals are not speaking to each other on the same level of formality, or lack thereof. One form of delivery, such as business speech, does not fit every setting. While it is not necessary for a person to know how to know the right words for every single situation, learning different ways of speaking from the formal to the unsavory can enrich one’s understanding of a language.
Morgan Jerkins is a comparative literature major from Williamston, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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