Category Archives: Languages in Liberal Arts

The magic of language

Seaira Lett

When I achieved competency in Spanish (though of course not perfection), I felt like a whole new world opened up to me; I could now understand so much more literature and music, talk to a whole new population of the world, and just experience things that I didn’t as a monolingual. I even had the opportunity to read Christopher Columbus’s first letter back to Spain informing about the Americas in its original language. Learning Spanish has had a huge impact on who I am today and has become an important part of my life. 

According to Emory University, a liberal arts education “is not technical training for a single field. Rather it’s an intellectual grounding in many fields… It’s a foundation for you, but also for society, preparing you to serve, lead, and—yes—change the world.” Multicultural and multilingual competency is essential in our diverse world. In order to serve and lead, it’s necessary to communicate, understand, and empathize with others, especially those who are very different from you.

We all have the responsibility of gaining this competency not only to comprehend other cultures, but to break stereotypes about our own cultures through cross-cultural communication. A well-known example is the stereotype that all Anglo-Americans are monolingual and uninterested in other cultures, so for one to learn another language subverts this view.

In my experience speaking Spanish in everyday situations, such as the check-out at a Mexican grocery store, people always have positive reactions, and many times it starts a conversation in which I’m asked how I learned Spanish. These interactions are especially important to me because after a short conversation you can shape someone’s image of your country or culture. By learning another language, you start a cross-cultural discussion, in which you connect with people you wouldn’t have otherwise connected with. This is precisely how we can change the world, by bringing different people closer together and forming positive relationships with them.

Native speakers of English have a privilege, since English is internationally considered a prestigious language, and publications in English dominate academic fields. In the US, other languages are devalued despite the existence of many communities whose primary language isn’t English. By learning another language, Anglophones can use their privilege to give a voice to cultures that don’t usually have a place in Anglophone discourse.

Studying foreign language and culture is crucial to any education. Along with the impact it ultimately has on the world, it will change your life. Not only is it incredibly fun and exciting (e.g. trying new food!), but it puts you in situations you otherwise wouldn’t be in. It brings you closer to so many different people. It constantly reminds you how big and diverse the world really is. Your perspective becomes much broader and you see things that you hadn’t seen before. You become much more empathetic and tolerant of others, and you develop a curiosity and a desire to learn, to try new things, and to see new places. It takes you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to grow, and through this type of experience leaders are created. Also, there is something magical about being able to consult foreign texts in their original words- whether it’s a pop song or an academic paper.

Languages and Life Lessons

Oftentimes, when someone thinks of a liberal arts education, they think of an education that requires the study of multiple subjects that have nothing to do with each other. Too frequently, STEM majors get criticized for “wasting their time” on studying foreign language, and even students within the humanities realm are discouraged from putting too much effort into the acquisition of languages that are not essential to their field (especially the rarer languages). It is likely, however, that people who downplay the importance of studying foreign language simply aren’t aware of its many benefits.

Snapshot of A Torre de Belém from study abroad in Portugal 2019                 

Some of the most important lessons I have learned in life have come from studying foreign language. The skills that I have developed from learning foreign languages can be applied to any major or job, regardless if it is in the realm of humanities or STEM. Learning how to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes is an essential life skill. Too often, students focus too much on perfection and are not exposed to failing. When this happens, they are unable to constructively cope with criticism and may not be able to improve their performance as well as someone who is experienced with learning from their errors. When studying a foreign language, making mistakes is inevitable. It is from these mistakes, however, that growth is achieved. These small mistakes train the brain to perceive errors differently. Learning a foreign language allows a relatively quick payoff; the more one makes errors when speaking and writing the more they are able to fix their mistakes and perform with increased proficiency. This way, when students who have studied foreign language enter the job market (or enter graduate programs), they are able to enter with confidence and resiliency.

The development of interpersonal skills is critical not only in a liberal arts education but in life as a whole. It is not possible to live life without interacting with people; in fact, even the most qualified professionals are not accepted into a certain program or job offer because they were lacking in people skills. Learning a foreign language requires the ability to interact with people and concisely formulate what one has to say. Overcoming language barriers is difficult; if one is able to successfully work around cultural and linguistic differences, they are likely more equipped to resolve issues in their native tongue. This also improves one’s critical thinking skills, which is useful when making compromises in the work force.

Perhaps most importantly, studying foreign language decreases cultural biases and contributes to open-mindedness. Unfortunately, when people form racist judgements and hateful assumptions, it is often because they have not been around people that are different from them. Learning about another culture and language promotes a deeper understanding and connection to others that one would not normally have. The more people connect and learn about one another, the more they realize humans are not so different after all (regardless of race and culture). Studying foreign language is crucial not only for a liberal arts education; it betters society as a whole.

Okay but how did I get here?

It was September 2018 and I was at the top of a steep hill; the city of Heidelberg spread before me. Beside me were thirty other students, all of us brought together by a two week German education program. 

A boy from our group leaned over to another girl and began to tell her – in Spanish – how the buildings spread across the hilltops reminded him of home – Quito, Ecuador. I listened to Mathias describe Quito to Mariona and when he was done, I grinned at them. I had understood! Not perfectly, but still. I knew they were talking about Quito. Which was something, considering I thought I’d lost all of my Spanish vocabulary when I stopped taking it sophomore year of high school. 

with my friends Mariona and Angela, who I met studying German in Heidelberg

Mariona laughed, “You speak Spanish?” But I didn’t – not really. I could barely form a sentence. Still, here I was, thousands of miles away from my former classrooms, trying to learn German, and realizing I could generally understand an Ecuadorian teenager explaining the landscape of his home city to a Catalan med student.

Okay but… how did I even get here? On a hilltop in Germany, deciphering the details of a Spanish conversation? What? Lucy? Huh?

There’s a very long answer to this question – how a year before I’d decided to take a gap year, how I’d arrived in Vienna to au-pair and realized my host family was… um… the worst. Then somehow I created an escape plan and ran away to do a German program. Well, okay, I didn’t actually run away, I told the family – the mom yelled at me which made me feel great – I stayed a week in Vienna on my own and then took a bus to Heidelberg. Kind of like running away though.

It had all happened so quickly that when I asked myself, “how did I get here?” I was too physically exhausted to really consider how it could have happened any other way.

But thinking back on it, I realize how it all happened. It wasn’t because my au-pair host family ended up being insane. It wasn’t because my mom wouldn’t let me come home until I had a positive experience. It wasn’t even because I’d worked two years at a restaurant to afford these last minute travels. It was because I studied languages.

Why did I even want to take a gap year? Because I wanted to be fluent in German. Why did I want to be fluent in German? Because I’d studied in Berlin the summer before and

Quito in all her glory

fallen in love with the city. Why did I study in Berlin? Because I’d started taking German my freshman year of high school. And because of German, here I was learning Spanish again. 

Learning a language has brought me to so many unexpected places, like that hilltop in Heidelberg, and it continues to, as my experiences build on each other, one after another. 

And that is what a liberal arts education is all about – broadening your horizons and gaining knowledge from every pretty place there’s knowledge to be taken from, especially the places you wouldn’t expect.

Yes to Foreign Languages!

To the people who hate foreign languages and think that they’re useless, boring, stupid, or insert-negative-adjective-here because they were never “good at them” and therefore learned to hate them—I don’t understand you.

To each their own, by all means, but I just don’t understand you.

I was never naturally good at subjects like math or physics, but I didn’t think they were useless. I did think they were boring and difficult, and I did dislike them—but let’s clarify the main difference here being in its usefulness.

English is not the only language spoken in the world, nor is it the only cultural presence. Take it from me, someone who has grown up in a Korean household but never completely acquired the language due to the prevalence of English in my environment. This is actually one of the few regrets I have thus far—neglecting to improve my proficiency in my mother’s language until many years later and not learning much about my family’s culture. Older and wiser, I now jump on any opportunity to better my linguistic and cultural education.

During one of my high school summers, I went to El Lago del Bosque, a Spanish language immersion camp under Concordia Language Villages.

To me, liberal arts education signifies having the freedom to study various disciplines and developing an understanding in those areas which can be intersected with your chosen field of study. A liberal arts education is vital in any field because it offers you a perspective that scopes the world and all of its histories, cultures, societies, peoples, and respective intersections. This includes the study of foreign languages and cultures because translingual and transcultural competence is relevant across the board.

It is impossible to study a field and study just that field. Engineering does not mean you only study engineering; medicine does not mean you only study medicine. In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects about the world is being able to intertwine seemingly unrelated subjects in order to navigate complex issues that arise. Of these issues, the most prevalent mandate an understanding of social and cultural complexities—for example, how would you be able to understand the discrepancies in access to healthcare if you did not first understand the underlying socioeconomic factors? How would you be able to effectively communicate as a professional to non-English speakers without prior knowledge of their language and culture first? How would you be able to conduct research studies about filial piety on a specific community without first understanding their cultural values? It goes without saying that interdisciplinary studies is inevitable in real world circumstances.

Me, holding a super-tabla, and a friend at El Lago del Bosque. Having a super-tabla meant I could only speak Spanish for the entire day – no English whatsoever.

From a less academic standpoint, learning foreign languages and cultures is essential to a liberal arts education because it offers you an intangible depth in your education that is difficult to find elsewhere. This field of study offers you the opportunity to understand a lifestyle, history, and people, while also allowing you to experience aspects of their culture such as regional foods, festivals and holidays, and music. Rather than an impersonal approach like other classes may adopt, foreign language and culture courses lure you into the hearts of the nation and the people with invaluable experiences.

How to Have Dinner in Italy Without Speaking Italian (or English)

When asked, the stereotypical American traveler will tell you that learning the language of whatever European country you’ve decided to travel to is unnecessary. 

“Everyone speaks English,” they say. These travelers are also the ones that say every native speaker in every place they’ve ever visited (especially in Paris), are extremely rude. This is devastating, especially considering how English often borrows from other languages. The study of foreign languages and cultures is arguably essential and necessary for a well-rounded education. A background with a foreign language can make travel or international business transactions easier, and it raises the standard of American education closer to its European counterpart, where foreign languages are taught as young as five years old.   

I distinctly remember a spring break trip to Europe. It was with a school group, in the middle of the Tuscan countryside in a hotel that rarely saw such large groups. That night, the tour guide told us that it was our choice if a group wanted to walk to get pizza or another wanted to eat at the hotel restaurant. The chaperone (my high school french teacher), the tour guide, and the rest of the students decided that they wanted to walk to a small pizzeria about a mile away for dinner. That day, we had walked the entire city of Florence and climbed one of the steepest hills you have ever encountered in your life in order to see a view of the city. 

I did not want to walk a mile for pizza. The hotel restaurant was right there and we could eat where we wanted. I asked if I could eat at the restaurant, even though no one else would come with me. In retrospect, it was probably unwise of my teacher to let a minor eat alone in a restaurant in a foreign country, but hindsight is always 20/20. Before the trip, my teacher had taught everyone common phrases in Italian, to be polite to native speakers and in case we encountered someone who didn’t speak English. I was grateful for my french teacher that night. 


Once my group leaves, I go to the restaurant. My waitress is an italian woman in her sixties. She has dark, short hair, tan skin, and a warm smile. She hands me a menu and I look it over for a few minutes. I stare at the menu like it’s full of hieroglyphs. I decide to go with whatever had been chosen for “the menu of the day.” My waitress returns, and I tell her I want the menu of the day, per favore

She shakes her head and mutters negatives in Italian. Oh no, what did I do?

“You have to pick,” she explains in Italian (by some miracle of my French and limited Spanish, I understand her completely). She starts reading the entire menu to me, and somehow, it makes sense. I recognize words in Spanish or French and start praying they mean the same in Italian. I hear, “pesto,” and something like, “beef” and I know what I want.

The waitress and I get through dinner with smiles and nods. The food is fabulous. She even helps me pronounce a word. Google translate is my savior. I pay and leave. 


I think about that dinner often. I think about how things could have gone if I hadn’t taken language classes, and while I’m grateful I learned what I could, I couldn’t help but wish I’d had more.

Perhaps Europeans aren’t rude. Perhaps the values of American education are misplaced. 

photo of thinly sliced meat on a plate. grease gathers on the meat and a lemon wedge rests on top. end alt text.

Mystery beef eaten by the author. The true identity of the meat remains unknown to this day.


Why should YOU study languages?

Considering that I have studied Japanese now for almost seven years, it is almost
impossible for me to imagine a college education without foreign language as a part of
my curriculum. However, when coming to college without having previously studied a
new language, it may be hard to imagine why learning a brand new language is relevant
to your overall education. One may ask themselves, “I’m a biology major, why do I need
to study a language when I could be getting some of my major requirements out of the
way?” When asking yourself a question like this one, it is important to refer back to
what a liberal arts education like Emory’s is meant to be.
Emory describes liberal arts as a foundation—a platform for students to gain
understanding in fields ranging from math, science, and much more, including foreign
language. When I think of a liberal arts education, I think of the invaluable skills I will
have when I step foot outside of the college realm. No matter what type of job one finds
themselves doing after graduation, having knowledge of a language and its culture will

My friends and I in Okinawa, Japan when we all decided to match with stripes!

surely be beneficial to their line of work. Just as having some general knowledge of math, science and English will help one make educated decisions and observations in the world, so will any language skills. If you’re planning to be a doctor in the future, mastery of a language could put you at an advantage in helping non-English speaking populations near your practice. If you’re planning to become a teacher, learning a new language

could benefit you in assisting students who are learning English as a second language. In
addition to this, foreign language education allows one to subsequently learn about new cultures as well. With the understanding of a new culture, you’ll be able to better function in situations where your colleagues or associates are of different backgrounds. No matter what you plan to do, learning new languages and cultures opens so many doors of opportunity that once you start, you’ll wonder why you didn’t begin earlier.
As I mentioned earlier, it would be difficult for me to imagine an education
without a foreign language. In my experience, my skill set in Japanese and my
knowledge about the culture has exposed me to possibilities that I would have never
encountered were it not for my experience in foreign language. For example, as a
sophomore in high school, after having passionately studied for so long, I was able to take my skills abroad to Okinawa, Japan where I was able to live with a host family and
test out what I’d learned over the years. No matter how long you’ve been studying a
language, it is so rewarding to be able to travel to a new place, near or far and be able to
use use your skills. The pure joy that is felt by being able to express yourself is, I feel, the
most beautiful part about studying a foreign language. So, in thinking about why the study of foreign language and cultures is essential to a liberal arts education, I look back
on my own journey with Japanese and think about how it has shaped me into who I am
even though I have many other diverse interests. With this in mind, no matter what you
study, learning something as life-changing as a language will make you a better
learner, employee, and person overall.

My host family and I; from left to right: my oldest brother and his wife, my father, myself, and my mother.

Why Language?

“Liberal Arts” has been thrown around a lot in the college world but not a lot of people understand its meaning. How did liberal arts become so popular? Why is it liberal and why is it art? And where the heck does foreign languages fit in the picture? The Liberal Arts are supposed to teach its pupils “those universal principles which are the condition of the possibility of the existence of anything and everything” (wikipedia). Liberal Arts is actually short for the seven liberal arts which is broken up into two groups: trivium and quadrivium. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic comprise the trivium portion and arithmetic, music, astronomy, and geometry comprise quadrivium. Trivium is the first step in the process and once you’ve completed quadrivium, you’ve learned the foundation of philosophy. In classical Greece, Liberal Arts were seen as “essential” to the Greeks for a person to be a well-rounded responsible citizen. A Liberal Arts education’s purpose is to teach you to think. A valuable skill that will take you farther and enhance your life more than what a job gives you.

Me, an intellectual, completely a qualified scholar on Liberal Arts

The liberal in Liberal Arts education has nothing to do with politics; it has everything to do with the freedom of ideas, of thinking that our education affords us. You gain an independence of sorts, an independence to look at the world with whole new perspectives.
At this point, you’re probably wondering: where’s she going with this? I thought this was supposed to be about language is an important part of Liberal Arts education. She’s barely mentioned it!” My apologizes dear reader, I promise I’m getting to the point soon. I want to draw your attention to the trivium of Liberal Arts – rhetoric, logic, grammar. These subjects are the basis of language 

 Have you ever traveled anywhere? Seen a movie?  Read a book? Talked with someone? Maybe even just walked around campus.  If you’ve done any of the above, you in some way, shape or form have interacted with a foreign language. Language permeates human existence and you’d have to live in a whole in the ground all alone to escape it.  The English language loves to take words from other languages and them to our vocabulary. You get to meet and learn from a variety of fascinating people and enjoy a vast range of cultures. 

Sometimes we forget that an important part of Liberal arts is right in the name “arts”. Language is an art – think language arts in school, English and foreign language courses. These build up your rhetorical abilities, introduce you to various cultures and a communication system that can hardwire your brain differently than your first language. Language is essential to this idea of freedom of thought that is so inherent to our Liberal Arts education. It’s a guiding force. How would we share ideas with others if it wasn’t for language? A person in America can take scientific research from India and gather new discoveries just by making the effort to understand the language it was recorded in. Likewise, an English first language speaker can read a book in Spanish and gain an understanding of a Mexican immigrant’s life. Language is an expression of joy, sadness, grief, anger, confusion, hope, longing, nostalgia, and creativity. Foreign Language is a necessity for college students on a Liberal arts campus because how else would these ideas be transferable to the world and how would our minds be able to change like they’re supposed here during our college experience? To be a citizen of the world, a human being, we must communicate with each other. It is a fundamental aspect of humanity; language. Being able to understand – even a little bit – of foreign languages opens up doors to a world of possibilitiesDon’t you want to discover something new, something that may just change your life? Learn a foreign language. Trust me, it’s worth it 

Still from my French 203 Final Project Film – we are in a “Parisian café” and the waiter took away our fake paper cigarettes

The aftermath of our paper cigarettes being stolen