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Now’s the Time for Teens to Learn a New Language

With the end of stay-at-home orders and social distancing still, well, distant in many areas of the country, your teen’s original summer plans of having a part-time job, vacationing, and hanging out with friends are probably going to look pretty different. Why not take advantage of newfound free time—and a plethora of discounted and free online resources—by encouraging your teen to learn a new language?

Here are six reasons why your teen should use their time at home this summer to study a second language. (Or third or fourth.)

6 Reasons to Learn a New Language Now

1. Adolescence is a great time to learn a language.

While there’s a myth that little kids have the easiest time learning new languages, according to Dr. Elizabeth Bernhardt, director of Stanford Language Center and professor of German at Stanford University, teens can rapidly pick up a new language between the ages of 13 and 17. That’s because, she says, “That age group has a large cognitive capacity and fully developed first-language literacy.”

2. You can learn for free or cheap from home right now.

A number of language-learning providers and other companies are discounting their tools or offering them for free to help keep people occupied while staying home. Some options include:

  • Audible – free audiobooks in multiple languages for kids and teens for the duration of COVID-19
  • Babbel – three months of free language lessons in spring 2020
  • COERLL – high-quality open educational resources for language learning
  • Coursera – free online courses including multiple languages
  • Duolingo – free for basic level of the language-learning resource
  • Mango – free language-learning resource for schools closed through the end of this school year
  • Rosetta Stone – free access for students for three months
  • Online resources to study Latin or Greek during COVID-19 school closures
  • Your local school district, library, or university

These tools are a good start for learning basic vocabulary and grammar. “And then it’s important to connect with real speakers of the language,” says Dr. Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, associate dean of Yale College and director of the Center for Language Study and adjunct professor of linguistics at Yale University. “Much of this can be done through Zoom or Skype, or even through gaming on Xbox, for example.”

(In the spirit of internet safety, parents should supervise their teens’ use of any apps, websites, or online communities.)

3. Colleges love languages.

Tulane University’s director of admission, Jeff Schiffman, says, “We have a lot of students super concerned that there are no extracurriculars right now.” Although he reassures students that a resume gap is OK during this time, Schiffman says if teens do find a passion, “especially if it’s a language, we’d love to see it.”

Tulane doesn’t have a language requirement, but Schiffman believes knowing multiple languages is an “opportunity to shine brighter in the admissions process.”

Margit Dahl, director of admissions at Yale University, which, like Tulane, doesn’t have a formal language requirement for admission, and Beth Wiser, Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions at The Ohio State University, which does, suggest looking at studying a language as a chance for your teen to show they’ve gone beyond their high school’s minimum graduation requirements.

“We notice when students take no foreign language after tenth grade,” Dahl says. “Applicants to highly selective colleges and universities are expected to be doing more than the minimum required. And if a student has taken no language at all in high school (aside from English), it would hurt them. That does not mean we have never taken such a student, but it is rare.”

Applicants with a thorough knowledge of two languages might stand out, but Dahl emphasizes that Yale would rather see students master a single second language than dabble in many.

At Ohio State, Dr. Wiser says, “Students exceeding the minimum curriculum in areas like foreign language, as well as the other academic areas, are given additional consideration.”

Your teen probably won’t become proficient in a new language in just one summer. But at the very least they should be more comfortable studying languages in high school and college.

4. Knowing more than one language might get your teen hired.

Dr. Van Deusen-Scholl says, “In a globalized world many employers are looking for people who have advanced language skills.” This includes international corporations, the travel industry, the Federal government, and more.

But you don’t have to be a translator or international diplomat to use multiple languages in the workplace.

“The U.S. population is very culturally diverse,” says Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director of OfficeTeam, a Robert Half Company. In areas with a heavy population of non-native English speakers, teens who can speak the same languages as their coworkers should be able to communicate more effectively.

“It’s helpful if you’re able to learn a new skill set and add those things to your resume,” Naznitsky says. “It just provides more talking points in an interview that you can showcase, your willingness to learn and explore.”

5. Don’t rule out the classics.

Latin and Greek aren’t the dead languages they’re rumored to be. Learning these classical languages has been linked to better grades and standardized test scores, as well as an aptitude for learning scientific terminology and legalese for aspiring doctors, scientists, and lawyers.

“Even a basic knowledge of Greek and Latin roots can help students to grasp the meanings of many multisyllabic words,” according to Kristen Bortner, executive committee member for Ascanius: The Youth Classics Institute. That’s because more than 60 percent of English words come from these languages.

“I once had a class of ninth-grade students who, by the middle of the year, were adamant that Latin had made them smart,” Bortner says. “A beginning Latin vocabulary had changed the way they approached English words, and they felt like they were performing magic.”

Bortner also says her students who went on to careers in medicine, science, and law reported having an easier time learning terminology than their peers who didn’t take Latin in high school.

But the advantages of learning the classics aren’t purely academic. “These languages give us a window into the fascinating history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome,” Bortner says.

6. Languages expand teens’ worlds.

Even if your teen never needs their new language in school or on the job (though chances are, they will), each language they know helps them better understand and appreciate other cultures, opens doors to communication with a wider range of people, and comes in handy for world travel.

“Learning a language is liberating, which means that you have a broader world to explore, a broader world to think about,” Dr. Bernhardt says. “It helps build confidence, meaning it’s as if you have another tool in your toolbox. Something else you can operate on the world with.”

To get the most out of a new language, Dr. Van Deusen-Scholl says, “It’s important to learn a language that you are interested in and excited about.” Teens might choose a language to

  • Communicate with family members, friends, or neighbors
  • Learn more about their heritage
  • Prepare for future education or career goals
  • Prepare to travel or study abroad
  • Dig deeper into a culture they enjoy (Dr. Van Deusen-Scholl’s examples include learning Korean because of K-Pop, Japanese because of anime, or Italian because of food or opera)

This is the perfect time for teens to take advantage of being at home and the abundance of cost-effective resources to broaden their linguistic horizons. “It’s just a really good use of kids’ time,” Dr. Bernhardt says. “Video games are only good for so long.”

Andrea Vardaro Tucker

Andrea Vardaro Tucker is a Pennsylvania-based mom of two who is board-certified as an editor in the life sciences and has written and edited pet- and health-related content for 15 years. Find more of her writing at andreavardarotucker.com.

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