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Thursday, September 21, 2023


Multilingualism on a diverse campus: it just makes sense

The majority of college students are required by their major to take some form of language class. While some students may moan and groan their way through a required course, knowing a second language — or even multiple languages — can be beneficial in more ways than practicality.

Multilingualism — generally limited to bilingualism — is a crux of many of the larger cities in the nation, and Houston is no exception. Though Spanish is by far the second most-commonly spoken language, don’t be surprised to overhear a conversation in Vietnamese, Chinese, or various South Asian and African languages, even as you walk around UH.

Though basic speaking and communicating skills in both English and Spanish are a must for many Houstonians to work effectively, it is much less common to be encouraged to learn more than three different languages comprehensively.

Polyglots are those who speak several languages with significant comprehension, and though it’s uncommon for English-speaking nations, who are blessed with the current lingua franca, nations with a large tourist economy encourage their children from an early age to speak several languages.

For example, the Union of India has two official languages: Hindi and English. Many countries use English as their second official language. In total, there are about 438 languages.

As UH begins to encourage students to travel abroad and engross themselves in other cultures, learning another language or two is more important than ever.

According to psychological studies, the brains of bilingual people operate in a different way than people who speak single language; these differences even offer cognitive advantages.

Abhilash Krishna, a geoscientist working at a Canada-based oil and gas firm in Houston, pursues geology courses at UH, speaks six languages: English, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and French.

“I was a young learner and was a natural when it came to languages,” Krishna said. “Also, over the years, because language always held a cultural dimension, it helped me connect to many people of various tongues over the years in several countries.”

Although many of these attributes are found only in people who speak multiple languages regularly, if one hasn’t been speaking a foreign language since high school, our brain may not be entirely benefiting from this, even if people who pursue a foreign language much later in life do manage to achieve the fluency as a young learner.

This skill boosts one’s ability to negotiate meaning in other problem-solving tasks as well. Students who study foreign languages tend to score better on standardized tests than their monolingual peers, particularly in the categories of mathematics, reading and vocabulary.

Children who are multilingual also develop above-average multi-tasking abilities, according to a study from the Pennsylvania State University. This “juggling” skill makes them good multitaskers, because they can easily switch between different structures.

Additionally, learning a second language can help fend off Alzheimer’s, as Rosetta Stone reported that bilingual people developed Alzheimer’s four to five years later than people who did not.

As a young adult, I pursued German language for a couple of years and then gave up; however, it still helped give me insight into a distant culture.

For the greater part of going to the German Language Center to learn Deutsch, it was about learning about the culture, grammar and meeting the many interesting people who came there with the intent to learn the language. There were movies that were screened, games we played in trying to warm up to the grammar and we ended up soaking more of it than we imagined.

Learning another language or two can be an educational and eye-opening experience, and getting actively involved in the culture can be beneficial mentally.

Opinion columnist Valli Challa is a law graduate student and opinion editor Kelly Schafler is a print journalism junior and they may be reached at [email protected].

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