Interconnected: The benefits of bilingualism

In 2016, Emily Nolting headed to the Summer Program in German & European Studies in Heidelberg, Germany, having taken minimal German language classes. She couldn’t pass up the opportunity to immerse herself in the culture of one of Europe’s most charming cities while earning nine credit hours for the experience.

“For the summer program, German isn’t a requirement, but my host family spoke only German, so it was rough communicating for the first two weeks,” said Nolting, a senior business administration and economics major from Columbus, Indiana. At the time, just answering basic questions like “What time will you be home?” and “How do I do my laundry?” was daunting. But that didn’t last long.

“My host family was very nice,” she said. “By the end of the six weeks, we were communicating perfectly fine.”

The experience was so positive that Nolting returned to Germany that fall, through the American Junior Year Program at the University of Heidelberg, and took all of her courses in German. She’s a bit of a language maven, proficient in French and now German – so much so that after an internship with a German machining company last summer, she’s decided she would like to live and work in Germany long term.

Nolting's co-workers at Index-Traub spoke exclusively German. “Machining language is complex and different. I had to relearn a lot about spindles, milling and drilling,” she said. By the end of her internship, she was translating customer Power Points and documents from German to English.

“People think it’s so hard to learn a language, and it is, but when you’re in a position to learn for your survival, it comes a lot quicker.”

That is to say that different languages are multi-faceted prisms through which we can look at and learn about the world.

Relevance in the liberal arts

Ask any professor who teaches language courses and you’re likely to hear that those who study a foreign language generally are better problem solvers, more analytical, more creative, better communicators and strong critical thinkers. They have the ability to be sensitive to other human beings and understanding of cultural differences. These key skills define a liberal arts education.

“In addition to enriching you as a person, knowing a language gives you direct access to the arts, music and literature and other cultures,” said Dr. Cynthia Lepeley, professor of Spanish. “When you can speak another person’s language, you have such an edge.”

Students who become proficient in another language are more flexible, more open-minded and comfortable in a diverse and global world, and that makes them more marketable, too, Lepeley said.

Teaching languages

Although they are small in number, language majors at Heidelberg study under the philosophy of “the lived experience” – that is, living and studying abroad at some point in their academic journey. “An international experience has always been the cornerstone of our language majors,” Lepeley said.

Currently, ’Berg students can major or minor in German or Spanish. In addition to Spanish and German, 100-level French and Chinese courses are regularly offered at Heidelberg, along with Greek on occasion. More students choose a language minor than a major, and language majors are encouraged to double-major because languages complement most other disciplines. For Spanish majors, the requirement is at least a semester abroad; for German, the requirement is one full year.

“Study abroad lets students get into the rhythms of everyday life and makes the academic experience so much richer,” Lepeley said. “Students learn to be at home in a place that’s at first unfamiliar to them. That’s where they learn to be flexible, independent, creative problem solvers.”

Prior to going abroad, students can take a one-hour prep class with topics that include cultural assumptions – stereotypes that go both ways. Current international students share their experiences with issues such as homesickness, their challenges and solutions. ’Berg students who have returned from study-abroad experiences visit the class to share their survival tips, too.

Alternative Break trips to such places as Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and the always-popular Texas-Mexico border trip provide an immersion setting that reinforces the importance of learning another language.

International students

International students studying on campus are tested to determine the level of English proficiency needed to succeed academically. For those not quite ready, the Heidelberg English Language Institute is there to help.

“If a student is accepted into one of our academic programs but their English is not proficient enough, they can take HELI courses to bring them up to the necessary level,” said Julie Arnold, ’86, director of International Affairs and Studies. HELI assists with reading, listening, speaking, grammar, writing – even learning to live in the U.S. Students are required to attend events outside the classroom, such as athletic events or volunteering at a local sharing kitchen.

“We’ve had students go through the entire (HELI) program and some who don’t need it at all,” Arnold explained. “It’s based on the English language foundation they have as well as how much effort they put into becoming immersed. Most are motivated to make progress and accomplish their goals.”

Familiarity with other cultures and languages enables individuals to gain a more profound understanding of their own culture. It’s a two-way street at Heidelberg. Arnold organizes a conversation partners program that pairs international students with American students to practice language skills. It’s a comfortable way to gain that familiarity and make a new friend.

Learning by immersion

In preparation for study abroad, students practice vocabulary, listening, reading and writing skills. Yet, there is no better way to learn a language than by living in that culture, according to Christine Maiberger, a German native and instructor of German.

“It’s an awakening that broadens their horizon tremendously,” said Maiberger. “The students who go to Germany come back transformed. It opens their eyes, makes them better global citizens and better American citizens.”

There’s an added level of understanding that comes with living in another culture, even in just a few weeks. “Many are motivated because they understand that the qualities of being a global citizen are needed to seek a successful professional career,” she said.

A competitive edge

Employers around the world understand that being bilingual or multilingual is a prized commodity in the global marketplace. Students who can communicate in a second or third language often have a competitive edge in career choices.

It certainly has been a huge asset for Emily Nolting as she pursued coursework and likely employment in Germany. She’ll graduate in May with her bachelor’s degree in business administration and economics, a thirst to travel and live abroad nurtured by her Heidelberg experiences and a foot in the door with proficiency in three languages.

Published in Spring 18

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