More than just ABCs: Secondary Language Acquisition as Continued Learning, Professional Development, and a Lesson in Empathy

By Alexa Yoo

The phrase “continued learning” doesn’t always call to mind language acquisition. Besides the roguish and alarmingly attentive Duolingo owl, many young professionals may not choose to spend their extracurricular hours practicing conjugation or poring over novel vocabulary. But what if language learning could offer more than just being able to order a certain dish on your family trip to Japan that summer? 

What if it could give you a career?

Orr Fellowship prides itself on including a wide diversity of university majors. Amidst the pragmatic Business and Marketing majors, you’ll find others who studied Astrophysics, International Relations, and even Anthropology. Some of the most intriguing, however, include those who received their degree in a non-English language. Usually, these will be double majors—Fellows who’ve studied Spanish and Religion, Neuroscience and French—and who’ve had the chance to apply their acquired skills abroad in foreign exchange programs. In addition to the direct application of the language itself, the learning process—as Justin Kopp ‘21 explains—includes skills they can apply in their “postgraduate careers even today.”

Justin majored in Religion and Spanish at Wabash College. Over coffee, he expresses his enthusiasm for promoting secondary language acquisition. He talks of his undergraduate work experience, where he and fellow Orr Fellow Danny Cuevas ‘21 took part in a Wabash alum-founded translative program working with parents of children with autism. Many or all of these parents were not fluent English speakers, Justin explains—so they were largely responsible for explaining the clinic’s care and instructions to them in Spanish. 

Justin’s passion is obvious, and his experiences diverse. Learning Spanish, he explains, even set him up for an easier transition in his current position as an Orr Fellow at Lev. Much of his present work involves coding language and tech jargon—which was made easier due to Justin’s prior experience in language acquisition and application. 

First year Fellow Mariah Parsons’ professional experience is similar—having accepted and fulfilled an undergraduate internship during her pre-medical studies largely due to her secondary language skills, Mariah also emphasizes the diversity of her educational experience because of her Spanish major. Her creative thinking and problem solving skills, she explains, were largely expanded even during a more stringent STEM educational track because of her cultural and literary experiences abroad, as well as in university. 

A Pathway for Learning

Justin and Mariah both bring up a point that has actually been widely studied by researchers for years: does bilingualism impact brain progressivity and efficiency?

Earlier research studied “socially disadvantaged groups” and incorrectly concluded that secondary language speakers had lower IQs and performance levels than their monolingual English speaking peers. More recent studies that compared socially similar groups conclude the exact opposite. If focusing purely on professionally applicable skill sets, bilingualism has been proven to increase “executive function” skills such as “inhibition” and “task switching.” Both of these are abilities that contribute to better academic and professional performances. As evidenced; a recent, smaller study led by Harvard researcher Gigi Luk compared several non-English dominant bilingual children with monolingual English speaking children counterparts. The bilingual students were just beginning to learn English, meaning their English vocabularies were far less developed than that of their monolingual peers. All children were subject to a standardized reading comprehension exam—and incredibly, all performed at similar or comparable levels. 

How, if these children had far more limited “mental dictionaries” than their English-native peers, were they able to do so? These aforementioned “executive function” skills, more developed within bilingual or multilingual children, allowed them to more effectively problem-solve; “taking into account higher level concepts such as whether a single sentence made sense within an overall storyline.” So even with their limited English vocabulary and grammatical grasp, these multilingual children demonstrated more developed problem-solving capabilities, applicable understanding of complex concepts, and general comprehension. 

That’s it, you may be thinking. Learning a secondary language is a valuable endeavor in the field of continued learning. There can’t be a doubt about it… Right?

A Different Experience

First-year Fellow Mando Salvador was raised in a bilingual household. Rather than studying Spanish in university, he spoke—and continues to speak—it with his family, friends, and while teaching salsa and bachata—where he spends much of his off-time from Orr Fellowship. He smiles as he describes the passionate nature of Latin dancing and the community he’s made for himself. He speaks a little bit faster when describing the nature of serving as translator, scribe, and medical assistant for his immigrant parents—remembering in real time his hurried youth and premature adulthood on account of this bilingualism. The Spanish language, he explains, is inextricable from his Latino and Mexican identity. This is something that he both adores and lives in fear of.

Listening to the Latin music he loves is complicated by disparaging and xenophobic comments to the nature of, “this is America—why are you listening to that Mexican music?” Or, “we’re in America. Speak English.” The language Mando knows and loves is turned into a weapon to question his identity as a Mexican-American man. The country he has served, as a Marines Veteran, does not always celebrate his story. But he does not let this deter his use of the “gift,” as he refers to it, of multilingualism. Mando has translated and diffused situations between law enforcement officers and native Spanish speakers—he has used his bilingualism to help, to celebrate, and to love others. Despite the bad, Mando expresses, he will never apologize for his ability to use his native language for good.

It’s easy to box continued learning in as an inaccessible or business-only oriented idea. It is more valuable, however, to consider the varied possibilities of a continued education as being the catalyst for cultural acceptance, professional development, and multifaceted understanding. Not only does Orr Fellowship strive to encourage diverse experiences, growth, and developed abilities in young professionals; but to understand the different stories behind these skills that might impact the perspective these individuals bring to the table.

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