Multilingualism, global competency and language learning for a better world: The role of independent scholars

By Research Scholar Kathleen Stein-Smith

Languages offer benefits and opportunities for those who can learn and use additional languages in their studies and professional lives, and in their roles as citizens both locally and globally. Language learning and language use also offer cognitive benefits at all ages. Unfortunately, US students do not always have the opportunity to learn additional languages. In addition to increasing access and affordability of language learning as a goal in itself, it is also necessary to learn and to use additional languages and multilingualism as a tool in creating a better world through increased understanding and appreciation of other cultures and of the ability to communicate and to work with others through the use of a common language.

My story with languages began with early exposure to French, Spanish, and German, continued by study in school, and by later study of Latin and Italian in school as well. While I have taught languages at various levels and in different settings over the years, and do so at the present time, it was my experience in using languages as a tool to help people and my interest in the role of multilingualism in the development of a global citizenship mindset and skills that led me to my doctoral research on multilingualism as a global competency and to my subsequent research, writing, and professional engagement. In addition, my experience as an undergraduate and graduate student in Quebec strengthened my lifelong interest in French language and Francophone culture around the world and here in North America. While in Quebec, I had the opportunity to do my master’s research thesis under the direction of Jean-Louis Darbelnet, a renowned expert on the comparative stylistics of French and English. My research and writing, as well as my professional engagement, reflect both aspects in their perspectives on the French language and Francophone culture in the context of a multilingual world.

… it is also necessary to learn and to use additional languages and multilingualism as a tool in creating a better world through increased understanding and appreciation of other cultures and of the ability to communicate and to work with others through the use of a common language.

Examples of language learning and multilingualism as a tool for global and regional solutions can be found in their role in international organizations like the United Nations, European Union, the International Olympic Committee, and many others. Within the European Union, multilingualism is a core value, and the ability to function in additional languages is referred to as plurilingualism. In addition, the ability to communicate is essential in effectively addressing complex global issues, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN include “partnerships” for achieving the goals as the final goal, a clear recognition of the role of communication in transnational teams. Most recently, the global COVID pandemic has highlighted the need to work together during global crises.

An especially interesting example of the significance of multilingualism in global citizenship has been the Many Languages One World Global Youth Forum (MLOW), which has brought college and university students together with all expenses paid to discuss and to present on the SDGs and on their implementation plans for specific goals in their communities in the UN General Assembly Hall — in a learned second language that was also one of the official languages of the UN. This author had the honor of serving as French language facilitator at MLOW, an opportunity to foster and encourage the use of multilingual skills on the world stage. In early 2022, this author had the opportunity to present in a CTAUN (Committee on Teaching about the UN) webinar on multilingualism with other MLOW participants among others.

While language learning can be successful at any time in life, an early start… supports the development of proficiency by the time students reach the college and university level and their ability both to use their languages as global change agents and to develop career and professional language skills… Multilingualism can make our lives better, providing the best window into other cultures, and enabling us to connect with those we meet in our travels and in our neighborhoods, where heritage languages are a sometimes-overlooked pathway to multilingualism. 

Increased access and affordability are primary goals of language advocacy, which is the defense and promotion of language learning and language use. It is essential to support language programs in our public schools and to support language education and use. In addition to language learning in the classroom, it is also important to consider access and affordability of after-school, weekend, and summer programs, as well as study abroad and experiential learning. Frequently, college and university students in the US want to be global citizens, to play a role in finding global solutions, and to help to make the world a better place, but realize that they lack practical and pre-professional language skills. While language learning can be successful at any time in life, an early start to continued language learning supports the development of proficiency by the time students reach the college and university level and their ability both to use their languages as global change agents and to develop career and professional language skills.

Beyond language learning, we should focus on the role of multilingualism in empowering us in our careers and as global citizens, and on the joy of multilingualism in making cross-cultural connections, both local and global, possible. Multilingualism can make our lives better, providing the best window into other cultures, and enabling us to connect with those we meet in our travels and in our neighborhoods, where heritage languages are a sometimes-overlooked pathway to multilingualism. 

Independent scholars, through their academic background and research skills, and — most importantly — because of their independence as scholars and researchers, can play a pivotal role in creating a multilingual society and world. The role of independent scholars is unique in that they bring both scholarly expertise and their independence as thinkers to the conversation.

We can all play a role in making multilingualism a part of our lives and the lives of our families and communities. Language educators, parents, and language stakeholders in business and government can work together to develop opportunity and funding.

Challenges facing language learning and use in the US include access and affordability. Not all students have the opportunity to learn an additional language in school, especially in public elementary schools, and language learning is not always affordable. Funding is needed so that all interested students have the opportunity to attend after-school, weekend, and summer language programs, and to take tuition-based courses, especially at the postsecondary level. Accessibility also includes making language learning accessible to those who may not be able to travel to a specific school or campus. Online learning offers a path forward in terms of both accessibility and affordability, and online language learning opportunities should be increased and encouraged.

Independent scholars, through their academic background and research skills, and — most importantly — because of their independence as scholars and researchers, can play a pivotal role in creating a multilingual society and world. The role of independent scholars is unique in that they bring both scholarly expertise and their independence as thinkers to the conversation.

Let’s make sure all of us have the opportunity to add multilingualism to our skills set!

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Kathleen Stein-Smith, PhD, Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes académiques, is a dedicated foreign language educator and advocate. She is a Ronin Institute Research Scholar and serves as Chair of the AATF (American Association of Teachers of French) Commission on Advocacy. She is also active in foreign language education associations and has presented at numerous professional conferences at the state, regional, and national level. She is the author of six books and numerous articles about the foreign language deficit and the importance of multilingualism, has given a TEDx talk on the U.S. foreign language deficit, has been interviewed by press and radio. and maintains a blog, Language Matters.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

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