Empathy and Foreign Language Learning

As I was writing this blog post, my husband called from Germany, where he is visiting family.   During the course of our conversation, we experienced some confusion over our plans for the coming days—a confusion born of the 8-hour time zone difference. Since it was 10:00 at night for me, but 6:00 in the morning for my husband, my “tomorrow” was his “today.” We resolved the confusion and had a laugh about our initial failure to see the other’s frame of reference. This was a small example of a failure of empathy. Empathy is broadly (and somewhat simplistically) defined as an ability to interpret experience from another’s perspective and to recognize the ways in which one’s own interpretations of experience are necessarily limited by one’s place in the world.

Much has been made in recent years of the decline of civility and empathy in public discourse. This decline in empathy is readily apparent to anyone who has spent time on social media. Perhaps more troubling are hints that empathy may be on the decline in higher education. In a relatively recent article in Liberal Education, Nadine Dolby, a professor of multicultural education, wrote of a striking example of students’ inability to see the perspectives of others. Students in one class were presented with a case study of a group of Americans who, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, collected toys to donate to an orphanage in Haiti. The toys included stuffed animals, battery-operated toys, and construction sets with hundreds of pieces. One year later, one of the Americans involved in the toy drive had occasion to visit the orphanage and was disappointed to discover that the toys were deemed unsuitable and had never been used.

Dolby asked her students to analyze what had gone wrong. To her dismay, the students were unable to understand the problems—that stuffed animals are germ magnets, that batteries are not readily available in orphanages in a country experiencing a state of emergency. Even as she attempted to help her students understand the point of view of the orphanage administrators, her students clung to their own beliefs, insisting that the toy drive was a success. Indeed, the students accused the recipients of being ungrateful.

Dolby’s anecdotal experience is backed up by empirical evidence on the decline of empathy among college-aged young adults.  A 2011 meta-analysis of 72 studies on empathy in college students conducted from 1972 to 2009 indicates a decline in empathy of up to 40% during that time period, with the most precipitous drop occurring around the turn of the century (Konrath, O’Brien, and Hsing).

The decline of empathy among college students is alarming since it is precisely at universities that students should develop empathy and compassion. Among the goals of a liberal arts education are intercultural knowledge and global learning, which involve an ability to “exercise empathy for and take the perspective of individuals from diverse backgrounds” (Rifkin, in press). Indeed, the Modern Language Association’s 2009 “Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature” states that university students should “experience people and places that are different and distant from . . . [their] home communities” and should “apply moral reasoning to ethical problems,” emphasizing the value of cross-cultural literacy.

Perhaps one of the best ways to develop empathy, particularly intercultural empathy, among college students is the study of foreign languages. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) asserts the need for foreign language study as part of effective and rigorous general education programs, stating that

There is no better tool for understanding the perspectives of different cultures than the study of foreign languages. To learn a culture’s history or art or traditions is secondhand knowledge; to learn its language is the first step to true understanding. In an increasingly interconnected world, competency in a foreign language molds students into informed participants in the international community—and highly prized employees. (ACTA, 2017-2017, pp. 9-10)

In a recent blog post, Julie Allen argued for the importance of foreign language learning. As she writes, when you learn a foreign language you “gradually learn to think differently, to conceptualize things that your native language isn’t capable of, and to stretch your mind around new ways of seeing the world, other people, and yourself.”

The great Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, has said that “learning another language is like becoming another person.” Those who speak another language can attest to the ways in which knowing a language and interacting with native speakers of that language opens up new worlds. My daughter, after spending time with me in Russia, remarked to my husband, “Mom is a different person when she speaks Russian.” And I am. When in Russia, I try to interact in culturally-appropriate ways. It is not enough simply to speak the language, one must also develop what the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages terms a “pluricultural identity” that will enable one to serve as a mediator among and between cultures. Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians (9:19-23), speaks of a pluricultural identity—of an ability to interact appropriately with peoples of various backgrounds:

19 For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself aservant unto all, that I might gain the more.

20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;

21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.

22 To the weak became I as aweak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

23 And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

Developing a pluricultural identity, however, is not possible without advanced level language proficiency. Learning another language is, of course, not a guarantee that students will develop cultural understanding—and with it, empathy. In fact, foreign language educators are increasingly concerned with methods and curricula for incorporating culture-learning into language classes. But learning a language is an important step in becoming a global citizen and an empathetic, compassionate person capable of navigating an increasingly contentious and multi-ethnic world.

Given the enormous potential of foreign language study to facilitate the development of empathy and compassion, it is alarming the many universities are dropping their foreign language requirements. Even Brigham Young University, which prides itself on its foreign languages, is examining general education models that do not include foreign language study. Our increasingly ethnically diverse society requires citizens who understand the languages, traditions, and histories of other cultures. Delving into other languages and learning to read complex literary texts rank among the most powerful means available for developing empathy and compassion and meeting the goals of a liberal education. The postsecondary level, according to the MLA’s report to the Teagle foundation cited above “is where most students gain the riches that will be their intellectual capital for the rest of their lives.” If the world truly is to be BYU’s campus, then its students will need to speak foreign languages—to “become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15). If the education that we provide at BYU is to be intellectually enlarging, spiritually strengthening, and character building, the study of foreign languages should remain an essential part of the equation.

Interested individuals can review BYU’s proposed GE models and leave comments at newge.byu.edu.

This post was written by Jennifer Bown, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

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  1. I found your article useful and valuable. Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspective.

  2. Arlene Fuentes says:

    Our university is also minimizing the foreign language requirements and replacing language courses with culture courses. Your article makes a great point about why this change will not accomplish the goal of developing understanding of and empathy for other cultures. We will use it in our curriculum committee discussions!

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