[lg policy] Georgia: Foreign languages enhance creative thinking

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 14 14:48:14 UTC 2009

Foreign languages enhance creative thinking
By Phil McKnight

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jim Motter wrote recently that his son will not qualify to use German
in the International Plan at Georgia Tech and that while Spanish,
Mandarin, Latin and German are desirable languages in high school,
French “is a waste of time.” All languages we teach at Tech have a
vital place in the curriculum, which focuses on developing effective
intercultural communication skills, a positive attitude toward
cultural identity differences and the ability to articulate global
aspects of emerging intercultural and international challenges like
climate change, immigration and technology.

• Editor's note: This essay is in rebuttal to a July 6 guest column,
No more French, s'il vous plait, which questioned the utility of
Georgia students learning French.

A new generation of students has expressed a strong desire to become
more globally aware and competent. Even without a formal foreign
language requirement, our enrollments have more than doubled recently
as we have integrated foreign language study into a broad
interdisciplinary configuration to respond to student demand. As a
result: A staggering 20 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in
foreign languages, compared to just 8.6 percent for all U.S. colleges.

A study published in Inside Higher Education revealed that students
who have worked and studied abroad “are more confident, have more
poise, self-esteem, autonomy, self-confidence, flexibility, maturity,
self-reliance and improved social skills.” They also become more
committed to their educational purpose, and this makes them more
competitive in today’s “flat” world.

Language, indeed, may scientifically increase the ability to learn.
Neuroscience has shown that the brain is plastic and dynamic, and
language is the most powerful means of forging links between existing
neuronal maps and — especially important — for creating new ones.
Therefore, all foreign language learning enhances creative thinking,
problem solving ability and the collaborative aptitude needed, as the
USG Board of Regents has put it, “to prepare students to function
successfully in a global society.”

But let me also correct Jim’s misreading of the IP Web site: students
may complete the IP with German even if they studied another language
in high school. As a former member of the Georgia Task Force on
Foreign Languages, I deplore the decreasing presence of German in so
many area high schools and I regret the decision by state government
to eliminate all foreign languages taught in elementary school. German
remains one of the most successful combinations with engineering,
computing and international affairs for the IP at Tech.

IP students typically complete two years of German, a faculty-led
intensive summer Language for Business and Technology program, a
semester of engineering classes at Tuin Munich — taken in German — and
complete a five-month internship with Siemens, BMW, Continental,
Deutsche Bahn and other companies.. But we have similar opportunities
for those taking French. Or Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish
and even Russian, should Jim’s son eventually decide on a different
language than German.

Among the 1,600 foreign-owned companies in Georgia, 350 of these are
German, 340 are Japanese and 191 are French. Georgia Tech also
operates a campus in Metz, France — Georgia Tech-Lorraine (GT-L) — to
which significant French research funding is funneled and many
students find internship opportunities. Summer applications for GT-L
doubled this year. Architecture also has a senior design year in
Paris, and exchange opportunities exist with the Université de
Technologie de Compiëgne or with Sciences Po in Paris.

Jim’s daughter would benefit in French courses at Tech that go well
beyond “French diction for the purpose of singing the art songs of
Gabriel Fauré,” including studies of French politics, economics,
media, film, environmental policy and sustainability issues — all
taught in French. Finally, I’d also like to think that Jim is
concerned about more than just how his son’s career will be enhanced
by completing the IP. How would his experience in another language and
culture impact or change his identity and values? If there are greater
things to be gained than enhanced career opportunities and potential
increased earnings, what are they? What about a philosophy of life? Or
how will he progress in intercultural understanding? Will he become
not only an engineer but also a citizen of the world?

Phil McKnight is a professor of German and chairman of the School of
Modern Languages at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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