The unfortunate destiny of people who only speak their native language is one of isolation, described Brian Kennelly, modern languages and literatures department chair and French professor. “You’re doomed to be washed up on some mono-language patch of sand in a much more interesting ocean,” he said.
Kennelly described language as being connected to every aspect of life, from everyday communication and traditions to art, literature, film, business and politics.
Many students study language because they are interested in traveling and experiencing other cultures.
“I’m kind of like the translator for the family,” child development junior Lauren Ambrose said of traveling through Latin America. Ambrose is currently pursuing a Spanish minor which she hopes to use both while she’s traveling and in her future career. Ambrose plans to work with Spanish-speaking families when she graduates.
“I really like to work with that culture,” she said.
Students are often required to enroll in second language courses if they desire to take advantage of study abroad opportunities in non-English speaking countries, including Cal Poly’s Spain Study Program.
Agribusiness sophomore Hayley Maynard plans to use her Spanish minor when she studies in Chile next spring semester.
“I hope not many people speak English,” she said, wanting to improve her Spanish skills while she’s there.
Others take courses to fulfill a major requirement or to increase their chances of getting accepted into a graduate program. Many graduate schools have second language requirements due to the fact that important research is frequently published in non-English books and journals.
Many take courses for languages they already speak in order to enhance speaking and writing abilities. The courses also provide a greater understanding of cultural history and an opportunity to explore native arts and literatures.
Still other students learn second languages in order to make themselves more marketable to employers.
Maynard recently attended a job fair for agribusiness students in which none of the companies asked about her grade point average. Instead, “they all wanted to know if we spoke another language,” said said.
Kennelly painted a picture of a Cal Poly business student who only speaks American (English, he said, is what people speak in England): “Companies (that) students want to work for aren’t based in the United States or won’t be,” Kennelly said. “You’re going to need to communicate in the language of that culture in order to succeed.”
Kennelly agreed that a businessperson may be able to travel abroad, speak American and make a sale, but he or she will not understand some aspects of culture which can create more personal relationships. During a business dinner in France, for example, “Would you know it’s inappropriate to talk about business until the dessert course?” Kennelly asked.
Making the effort to learn another language and understand a country’s culture will give travelers more respect and credibility in the eyes of natives, Kennelly said.
He emphasized that people work with whom they are comfortable with, and therefore, employers hire workers who they are compatible with.
“Languages facilitate communication, and there’s no way you’re going to make a connection with someone without communication,” Kennelly said.
He said it’s important for students to give themselves an edge when applying for jobs. This can be achieved through immersion into different areas of study, whether it be through language classes, internships, or minors in other fields.
Not only are languages important in the world of business, they also affect day-to-day life.
“Languages are alive, evolving and impacting decisions and foreign policies,” Kennelly said. It’s necessary to be able to communicate and relate with other cultures in order to truly understand what’s going on in the world, he added.
As Americans, “we’ve tended to believe the rest of the world needs to come to us and do things on our terms,” Kennelly said. But in this global world, he emphasized, “It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain that arrogant posture.”
In order for the United States to maintain its position as a superpower, Kennelly said the country needs to be in dialogue with the rest of the world.
“To be unable to deal with another person’s culture and their own terms is detrimental,” Spanish professor William Martinez said.
Studying another language is “the best way of learning about other peoples’ cultures and at the same time learning about your own,” Martinez said. Students of language study and view culture from an outside perspective, which in turn can lead to a deeper understanding of their own cultures as they are able to step into other peoples’ shoes and examine their own customs, traditions and values from another viewpoint.
Spanish is the language to learn for California residents, Martinez said. Students of all majors would benefit from learning the language.
California is home to more than 12.4 million Spanish-speakers, according to the 2000 Census. There are currently more Spanish-speakers in the United States than speakers of French, Hawaiian, and the various Native-American dialects combined, as stated in the Census.
“Pretty much anyone in California should know Spanish,” said agribusiness senior Andrew LaGraff, who is currently enrolled in his first Spanish course. “I hear Spanish every day, just around town.”
If students think they enroll in “foreign” language courses, they are mistaken. Kennelly hates the term, not only because it perpetuates an “us versus them opposition,” but because language is everywhere, he said.
The modern languages and literatures department offers classes in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. Majors must take classes in Spanish, with a choice of either French or German as a required second language. Minors are offered in Spanish, French, and German.
Kennelly said Cal Poly doesn’t offer nearly enough language courses.
“That’s not a criticism; that’s an opportunity,” he said.
Maynard, who wants to learn Greek, agreed.
“I really want to go (to Greece),” she said. “I Google pictures of it all the time.”
Kennelly grew up in South Africa, which has 11 official languages. In his lifetime he has learned Afrikaans, isiXhosa, Latin and French.
“In this country you’d be considered a wiz kid or unique,” he said of his knowledge of languages. Kennelly hopes that attitude will change.
Some of Kennelly’s goals as department chair are to expand Cal Poly’s Asian language course offerings and establish French as a main language choice for majors in addition to Spanish.
“Languages are the way human beings communicate,” Kennelly said. “You can restrict your communication channel to English and miss out on a lot of fun.”