Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Language on the SAT

All of my students invariably get my spiel on the number of languages I have studied and know with some proficiency: two forms of ancient Greek, Old English, Middle English, smatterings of Italian, German and more Latin than is good for me. Often students wonder why anyone would bother to learn so many languages, especially languages no one speaks anymore. I would argue, though, that studying different languages is one of the best things you can do to improve your cognitive ability and even your SAT score.

The study of foreign languages has some obvious perks in our interconnected world. First, in the job market, it makes you more competitive if you know how to speak another language. For example, the business world currently prizes those who speak Cantonese and Mandarin, while languages like Arabic are in high demand in the foreign relations field, and anyone entering academia should look at languages that relate to their area of interest. There’s nothing quite so fun for a philosophy major as reading Heidegger in the original German, after all.
Of course, the study of a language doesn’t have to be all about business. You can study a language just for pleasure. If you’re looking to take a trip to a foreign country, you should learn at least some basics of the local language. It’s certainly no fun to miss your 8:45 train because you did not understand viertel vor neun. However, intensive study of a language could even lead you to those travel opportunities through study abroad programs, international universities and the like. Immersing yourself in the language and culture is probably the best way to truly understand a language, and it’s definitely the most fun!

Then there are academic benefits. Numerous studies have shown that learning a second language develops different pathways in the mind, allowing it to process words and even logic problems in new ways. Understanding a second language makes it easier to pick up a third or even fourth, as demonstrated by students in Europe who routinely learn three or four languages before they leave school.

Finally, knowing other languages can help you on the SAT. By learning the grammar of a different language, you force your mind to develop a deeper understanding of your own grammar. This is invaluable on the writing section, where the hardest questions often require a feel for the fine nuances of word order and clause subordination. It also helps on the critical reading passages by improving your overall reading comprehension. Last but certainly not least, nothing will help you build up your vocabulary for the critical reading section quite like knowing your Latin cognates.
Hopefully by this time, you have started on your philological journey. If not, don’t despair. Even an elementary understanding of a second language can give you some impressive benefits in school and even in life!

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