Iowa State’s students come from 115 countries, bringing with them various spoken languages. However, most of the university’s students are native Iowans and native English speakers.
Though the majority of students are English-speaking natives, there are plenty of opportunities on campus to improve language ability, from clubs to classes.
Jean-Pierre Taoutel, senior lecturer of French and Arabic, said students come to class thinking “everyone speaks English,” so why would they need to learn another language?
“The thing is, they don’t realize that once you step outside the U.S. not everyone speaks English," Taoutel said. "Most of the time it’s the educated people who speak English. But when you’re traveling, the ordinary people might not speak English. So if you need to get to your bus, you need to get to the hotel, you need to know directions in the streets — it’s you who is in trouble, not them.”
Beyond simple survival skills when traveling abroad, there are professional incentives to learn a foreign language.
If you are an engineer at a conference in France or Germany, for example, and the conference is conducted in English, the people at the conference will all speak English, Taoutel said.
“Then there’s those little moments where they break down and they go ‘let’s have a coffee’ — those moments aren’t necessarily in English and these people start switching to German, French, Spanish or something and then if you don’t speak any of those languages, you’re excluded,” Taoutel said.
The department of world languages and cultures offers at least introductory level courses in American Sign Language, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Italian, Spanish, French, Latin, Arabic, German and Portuguese. Proficiency in a language other than English not only helps to broaden cultural understanding, but also helps in professional settings.
Jennifer Musgrove, lecturer of Spanish, said there are “two tracks” in the department of world languages and cultures.
“So one track if you will, we might call it the classic track, so they can major or minor in any of the languages we offer,” Musgrove said. “Then there’s the languages and cultures for professions track and they would need to have a primary major within the college of engineering, college of agriculture and life sciences [or] college of business.”
The courses someone on the languages and cultures for professions track may take could be tailored to their major, for example “Spanish for businesses and professionals,” Musgrove said.
Adam Bittner, sophomore in global resource systems, said he has gotten connections out of the language and cultures for professions track.
“Earlier this spring I took a gap semester from college,” Bittner said.
He said during that gap semester he worked on a farm in Argentina and would like to go back to South America to work abroad.
Musgrove said the study abroad program is very beneficial to students in developing their language ability.
“We need our formal classroom experience — that’s a good bedrock or foundation,” Musgrove said. “But when you think of the immersive experience — I mean we’re talking about 100 percent authenticity. Nothing is manufactured — you’re out, you’re conducting business, you’re purchasing things, you’re making arrangements, you’re catching a taxi — you’re doing all those things but you’re doing it in the target language. It’s also extremely confidence-building.”
Taoutel said he leads several study abroad programs, and when students return they are “new” people.
“They just open their mind," Taoutel said. "We teach them not to judge, but to understand — that’s the most important thing."
Bittner said he came to Iowa State without a background in speaking Spanish. The language and culture for professions track gives more exposure to a language.
Musgrove said it is never too late to learn another language, despite some misconceptions.
“Our brains are wired for language acquisition, so you take a look at cognitive linguistics and it just shows that there’s a common trend of thought within our culture, if you will," Musgrove said. "Just within the United States a lot of times you hear this message that’s just too bad for you, you should have learned back when you were a child, it’s too late. I get that a lot, from students and even from older folks who are even thinking about taking a language classes from Iowa State, 'Is it too late for me?' — and it’s not. Research backs that up.”
Taoutel also said there are misconceptions about the difficulty of learning languages.
“It’s not that impossible," Taoutel said. "You can [learn] a language in a year or two if you commit. You can function with the minimum and the basics. Most of the students who come here, they come with this preconceived idea that language is not for me I’m too old, it’s impossible — and no it is not. You can learn at any age.”
In learning a language, Musgrove said there are options at Iowa State beyond simply taking courses.
“Obviously we have Spanish Club available — students really enjoy that — of course it depends on their time,” Musgrove said. “So they can operate in the target language outside of the classroom in an authentic way with other learners and build their confidence.”
Taline Jouzi, sophomore in pre-diet and exercise and president of French Club, said in an email as an international student they are bilingual, speaking English and Arabic.
"With that said, my experience in learning another language has been great," Jouzi said. "It requires a lot of practice and passion for being able to continue. At times you may get demotivated because you won't be getting to the goal you are trying to achieve, however in the end, it is rewarding when you can understand the lyrics to a song or a couple of sentences in a movie. Moreover, be aware of the culture of the language; it can broaden your perspective about multiple topics and allows you to explore different areas to read about when learning a language."
Jouzi said French Club is a "great way" to practice speaking French outside of the classroom.
"I believe it does as you pick up different vocabulary and practice your pronunciation of various words from students that have more experience in the language than you," Jouzi said.
Taoutel also said he encourages students to attend language clubs and find people who speak their target language and meet them.
“Our students [...] we tell them to do the French table — so we meet once a week," Taoutel said. "There’s a French table, Russian table, Spanish table where they eat together [...] and they talk to each other in the language.”
In terms of developing language ability, Musgrove said people should never be dissuaded from trying to learn a language.
“No matter the language, no matter the culture — whatever language resonates with you for whatever reason that you feel passionate about it — then you follow that and that’s what you want to pursue for learning, and can you? Yes you can,” Musgrove said. “There is no language that’s too hard.”