story by LANE SANDERS photos by JACK DOBBS illustration by JB CARTER

“Exchange isn’t a year in your life, it’s a life in a year,” said Aurora Speltz, a freshman from Richmond, Kentucky.

Speltz was one of the only students who spoke proficient Spanish during her student exchange experience in Peru in her junior year of high school. She said that other students nominated her as the spokesperson of the group, and they all became very close.

“I was living in a city with 22 other foreign exchange students representing seven different countries, so the relationships I built with those students were really important to me,” Speltz said.

According to Pew Research Center, 92% of European students are learning at least one foreign language in school.

Compared with the U.S., this statistic is drastically different. The U.S. only has a 20% foreign language enrollment in K-12 learning, according to The American Councils for International Education in a 2017 study. Trini Stickle, a linguist and WKU English professor, has seen an increasing need for multilingualism throughout her career.

Spanish, Arabic and international relations triple major Aurora Speltz studies in her dorm room. Speltz, a WKU freshman from Richmond, Ky., studied in Peru with other international students before she came to WKU.
Homework lays on Speltz’s desk in her Minton Hall dorm room. Speltz hopes to use her three degrees to become a translator for governmental entities.

“We haven’t had a diverse population in a way that has required our population to learn another language,” Stickle said. “Obviously, there are pockets that have been multilingual for a long time like major metropolitan areas. But, if we think historically, when the immigrants were coming from Ireland, Germany and Poland, they were establishing neighborhoods and school systems in their native languages. But they also had an impetus then to learn English.”

Speltz, a Spanish, Arabic and international affairs triple major, said the discrepancy in multilingualism is due to a myth of American exceptionalism. Speltz thinks a lot of Americans believe that they won’t ever have to learn another language because everyone they come into contact with in their life is going to speak English.

Typically, in the U.S., if a foreign language is required, it is in high school, which is not using all of the potential that elementary-aged children have for acquiring and learning language, Stickle said. Younger children’s brains have more linguistic flexibility to learn a language, she said.

“We’re not capitalizing on what the human brain can do very early on,” Stickle said.

Fellow linguist and WKU English professor Elizabeth Winkler holds similar beliefs as Stickle, citing the critical age hypothesis, a linguistic debate regarding the acquisition of language to age.

“Kids acquire languages instead of learning them,” Winkler said. “If kids grow up in a bilingual home, they will just acquire both (languages) without effort.

Mayra Rodriguez is an English Language Paraeducator with Simpson County Schools is Franklin, Ky. Rodriguez works closely with students whose first language is not English, helping them stay caught up academically with their peers.

Because of this factor, Speltz thinks the U.S. should adopt a more European style of teaching and implement foreign language learning into elementary schools.

“If you’re having kids take language classes throughout elementary school, throughout middle school and high school, they’re way more likely to retain that information,” Speltz said. “Language is a use it or lose it thing.”

Knowing a second language has a multitude of benefits that Spanish and public relations double major Amanda Prichard from Brownsburg, Indiana, has experienced firsthand. Prichard, a junior, explains that being bilingual is helpful in situations where you can offer somebody who is struggling to speak English the comfort of saying that you can speak their language and that you are able to help them.

Mayra Rodriguez is an English Language Paraeducator with Simpson County Schools is Franklin, Ky. Rodriguez works closely with students whose first language is not English, helping them stay caught up academically with their peers.

Along with being able to help out others, Winkler said those who know more than one language benefit in other ways too, like receiving job and travel opportunities.

“I’ve had two jobs just because I was bilingual,” Winkler said. “I was a welfare caseworker — a social worker — and I didn’t have any background in that, but they were desperate for somebody who spoke Spanish, and they figured they could train me in the social work part. I was also a fifth grade teacher in a bilingual neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I didn’t have an education degree or any education classes. I get invited on scientific expeditions because they need a translator. There are so many advantages.”

Stickle has found that being bilingual can help people later in life, too. She states that in multilingual dementia patients, they are sometimes able to pull words from their other languages when they are having trouble finding it in one.

Winkler said along with being able to pull words in from their other languages, being multilingual may have even greater benefits in preventing symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases

“Some recent research shows that people with dementia have linguistic language problems up to five years later than people who are monolingual,” Winkler said. “Part of that has to do with the number of neural pathways that they have working for them, so as they start to break down, they still have more working than those who are monolingual.”

Prichard said that one of the most important aspects of languages is the culture behind them, so in public school curriculum the culture is oftentimes where students have the most interest. Prichard’s mom had her take Spanish 4, a dual credit course through a local college which ended up benefitting her in the long run.

“It was so much more fun because it’s not like the first three years where it’s all vocab lists and learning grammar. You actually learn about more cultural things and about the various countries that speak Spanish,” Prichard said. “During that time I really fell in love with the language, and that’s when I decided to do a study abroad program which was between my junior and senior year.”

Beyond just the practicality, learning a language can aid in personal growth and enlightenment, which was the case for Speltz during her year-long exchange to Peru.

“The best thing that came out of my exchange was the relationships that I built, especially with my fellow exchange students,” Speltz said. “I learned lots of different things from those relationships, but mainly it’s that people can come from vastly different cultural backgrounds and find common ground. We’re not as different as we imagined ourselves to be, and even when we are different we can find that common ground.”

Brownsburg, Ind., junior Amanda Prichard (left) laughs with Speltz while discussing an assignment for their Spanish class. Prichard said she hopes to use her language degrees to work as a translator. “With new languages, you find out more about yourself and the world around you,” Prichard said. “You continue to grow in the academic sense and in your own way.”