New Study Suggests Strong Ties between Cross-Cultural Literacy, Critical Thinking, and Language Learning

By Davey Young at A.C.E.–Dr. Joseph Poulshock of Tokyo Christian University, a close friend and former faculty member at A.C.E., recently brought this study to our attention. The findings were published only last week, and make a strong case for foreign language learning as pertains to critical thinking and problem solving skills, competency in the native language, and cross-cultural literacy.

Here is an excerpt from the abstract: “Kalamazoo College administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to first-years and seniors in 2005 and 2006, and again to seniors in 2007. By disaggregating student CLA scores and then grouping them by academic division, we revealed that foreign language majors at Kalamazoo College scored significantly higher on the CLA […]. While considering possible causes for this phenomenon, we reviewed recent literature on ways in which second language learning might enhance competency in the native language as well as critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The review revealed four attributes—metalinguistic awareness, critical reading, critical thinking and problem solving, and cross-cultural literacy—that receive explicit and regular attention in language courses and that may contribute to better performance on tasks like the CLA.”

Synopses of the four attributes mentioned above follow.

Metalinguistic awareness is defined here as “an awareness or bringing into explicit consciousness of linguistic form and structure in order to consider how they relate to and produce the underlying the meaning of utterances”. In other terms, it is the extent to which we identify and strategically utilize discreet linguistic properties such as phonology, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics to convey our intentions.

MacLean, Redmann, Smith, & Solberg’s study found that “[c]lassroom language learning, which focuses on vocabulary development and sentence structure, appears to result in improved writing ability in the native language because of increased metalinguistic awareness.” Advocates of language learning often paraphrase Goethe’s old quote “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own,” and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone who has studied a foreign language disagreed. This study is only one of many reinforcing such a notion.

The study also implies that critical reading skills are enhanced by learning a foreign language, as students are often lead through a text in slow motion, paying particular attention to linguistic and rhetorical elements as they go. Such an approach raises awareness of the reading process itself. (As a personal aside, this past spring I took a class titled “Teaching ESL Reading” for my MA TESOL program, and one day early in the course my professor asked us to read a passage from our textbook while taking notes in the margin about our comprehension process. I was fascinated to find out how complicated my reading process really is. Without even thinking about it, I make predictions, derive meaning through context, and draw text-to-text, text-to-reader, and text-to-world connections. Do I do this because I have studied other languages? According to the research, very likely.) The authors conclude that “making explicit best practices for reading may transform foreign language students into more competent readers in their native languages”.

They also state that “[s]tudying a foreign language requires linguistic problem solving which, in turn, leads students to develop abstract and conceptual thinking”. Thus, critical thinking and problem solving skills are enhanced by learning another language. This makes sense when one considers the vast linguistic disparities between languages. To be a bit bombastic: I remember how my mind reeled when I began studying Japanese and discovered that–surprise of all surprises–Japanese nouns do not inflect for singular or plural! “One friend” is the same as “friends”: tomodachi. “How,” I asked my teacher, “would I communicate that I went to the movies with one or several friends?” The answer lies in the use of quantifiers or simply relying on context. Such distinction demands an attentiveness that is not necessarily required in English. Indeed, there are innumerable disparities among all the languages of the world, and getting around these disparities means solving problems.

Assuming that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has even the smallest degree of validity, the implications of MacLean, Redmann, Smith, & Solberg’s study are quite sound. As Frederico Fellini said, “a different language is a different vision of life.”

Paramount to our mission here at A.C.E. is the mutually beneficial relationship between language learning and cross-cultural literacy, which we can define, for our purposes, as the ability to move freely and sensitively between conceptual borders resulting from the differences between languages and cultures. The section of the paper on cross-cultural literacy, in my opinion, is a bit scant, but understandingly so as this point is not the main thrust. The authors state that “the very act of reading—the struggle to comprehend and respond to a foreign language text—allows students to travel into and participate in another culture while maintaining a sense of otherness and difference”. In my experience, and I daresay the experience of everyone at A.C.E.–students and staff alike–learning a language effectively demands cross-cultural literacy and vice versa.

If I haven’t yet convinced you, check out these ten concisely stated reasons to study another language. (I found a couple of this post’s quotes here, and you may find the author’s persuasive powers a bit greater than my own.) Since I’m going a little quote crazy today, I’ll end with one more. Accepting Will Durant’s assertion that “education is the transmission of civilization”, then it isn’t much of a stretch to concede that language learning is the nadir or such transmission.

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