What’s the Point of Studying a Foreign Language?

a student upside down on the couch with their face buried in a Spanish textbook

Some students enjoy studying foreign languages, or at least, their language of choice. But many find the requirement to study a foreign language frustrating and tedious. They don’t want to learn Spanish or German or Japanese, but they’re required to do so for two years in order to graduate. So they inevitably ask, “What’s the point of studying a foreign language?”

Most adults answer this question with some version of the following: “Well, you might someday want to travel to a country where they speak that language. Or you might end up at a job where your coworkers speak that language.”

And there is some validity to that response. I studied Spanish in middle school and high school. Later, I used Spanish to get around in South America. I also worked in restaurants where many of my coworkers spoke Spanish much better than they spoke English, so I communicated with them in Spanish. For me, at least, Spanish was very practical.

But for many students, the “You might want to use it someday” answer is neither meaningful nor motivating. Sometimes, they have no intention of using the language for travel or work. More often, they’re struggling so much to learn the language that they can’t imagine a future where they will actually be able to use it.

For such students, there is a different, and ultimately more powerful, answer to the question: “What’s the point of studying a foreign language?”

Remember that one of the main purposes of school is brain exercise. And not just one kind of brain exercise, but a wide variety of mental challenges. Studying a foreign language is a unique form of brain exercise that you simply can’t get from other subjects.

A cartoon brain lifting weights and sweating

The Value of Learning Grammar and Spelling Rules

A common frustration is that the grammar and spelling rules of many languages don’t make sense. Unlike math and science, there is no underlying logic that explains why the rules of a language are what they are. Languages are accidents of cultural evolution. Their rules are arbitrary. So learning the rules is less an exercise in “getting it” than an exercise in pure memorization.

You can decide that this means learning a foreign language is stupid – that it’s a pointless hoop to jump through, a cruel sort of torture imposed on students by the school system. Or you could decide on a more empowering interpretation of reality – that studying a foreign language is an opportunity to strengthen your brain through a unique type of mental challenge. Then, it doesn’t matter that you have no plans to use the language in the future. It’s a valuable use of your time because it makes you smarter.

Cultivating the ability to memorize and accurately use a body of knowledge is a very practical skill. Doctors and psychologists learn to assess patients by memorizing what various symptoms usually mean (and all of the possible alternative diagnoses). Lawyers study all of the rules of our legal system, which is riddled with arbitrary if-then clauses, exclusions, and loopholes.

A lawyer processing a difficult case at his desk

And just about every job has a unique set of procedures that need to be memorized – procedures that, like grammar rules, are often accidents of cultural evolution. So you might not need to know French grammar in your future job, but you’ll need a brain that’s capable of learning something like French grammar.

Learning Foreign Languages Enhances Mental Flexibility

One of the main benefits of learning a foreign language is the development of cognitive flexibility. Since the rules and norms of various languages are arbitrary, there’s no universally “right” way to do things. For example, in English, we put adjectives in front of nouns: the black cat. In Spanish, they usually put adjectives after nouns: el gato negro. Neither option is objectively better; they’re just different.

Thus, by studying a foreign language, you’re forced to see that the way we do things isn’t the only way to do them. Importantly, this principle applies to far more than just languages.

The way things are done at one company isn’t the only way to do them; other companies might succeed by doing things quite differently. The way things are set up in this country isn’t the only way to do things; other nations have different laws and institutions. And what we do now isn’t set in stone; we can decide to change our ways.

So, ultimately, the purpose of learning a foreign language isn’t to be able to read, write, and speak the language, though you may wind up doing that. The point of studying a foreign language is learning to better navigate the complicated, dynamic landscape of human society. And that is a skill we all need.

How to Get Students to Care About Their Grades

Four teenage boys having fun

Here’s a question we sometimes get in our parenting classes or that Greg often gets in parent coaching sessions:

“Bobby just doesn’t seem to care about his grades. How do I get him to care?”

This exasperated parent is hoping that we’ll tell them the magic set of words they can say that will inspire their son to be motivated to do well at school. And they are always disappointed to hear that no such set of words exists.

“A teenager is like a Chinese finger trap, we patiently explain. “Actively trying to get them to care will have the opposite of your intended effect.”

And how do you get out of a Chinese finger trap? By relaxing a bit. The solution here is the same. The parent actually cares too much about their child’s grades. They need to care less.

The Student Should Own Their Grades

The core message for such parents is that the student needs to own their grades. Teachers, tutors, and parents should not be the ones emotionally invested in the child’s grades. The student needs to be the one who cares. If we do all the caring for them, they’ll reason that they don’t need to care.

a mom checking grades while the student lies upside down

We want students to be in charge of their own academic life. We want them to become active agents, responsible for their own learning. This means they get to choose whether or not to use resources, take notes, and ask for help. They get to choose whether or not to do more than what is asked or use effective study techniques. And they get to deal with whatever outcomes result from their choices – good or bad. They get to feel whatever emotions accompany those outcomes – pleasant or unpleasant.

Parents Should Do Less Grade Management

When parents are constantly checking their children’s online grades and getting on their case about every low test score and each missing assignment, it sends the wrong message.

By micromanaging your child’s grades, you’re telling your child two things: 1) They can’t manage their school life on their own, and 2) They don’t need to practice managing it because you’re going to do it for them. I have never once seen this behavior result in greater effort or buy-in from a student. Every time, this sort of overparenting breeds either passivity or active resistance.

a mother and daughter arguing about school

This is similar to a common issue around executive function. Parents often feel a need to step in and micromanage their children’s schoolwork, keeping track of due dates, upcoming tests, and project milestones. But if you do all the executive function work for your child, their brain will never be forced to develop the skills to manage their own schoolwork. You don’t get strong if someone else lifts the weights for you.

In fact, these two issues often go hand-in-hand because when a parent takes ownership of the executive function tasks related to school, they’re sending a strong signal to the child that they’re the ones who care most about the grades. The child, seeing that their parent is doing enough caring for the both of them, becomes a passive passenger.

Now, you can’t just flip a switch and turn your emotions off. You’re still going to care about your child’s grades. But you need to practice hiding those emotions or at least dialing them down. And you need to demonstrate through your actions – or lack of actions – that you’re not in charge of their grades. If your child sees that you’re no longer in charge of their grades, they’ll figure out that it must be their job to take the driver’s seat.

I’m also not suggesting that you ignore their grades completely, or that you become a totally laissez-faire parent. As always, the middle ground of parenting styles is best. There are ways to be engaged with your child’s academic life without micromanaging it. There are ways to hold your child accountable for their schoolwork without taking ownership of their grades.

Family Values and Natural Consequences

One way to do this is to clearly establish what your family’s values are around schoolwork and to define what the consequences are when you don’t live up to those standards.

For example, you could establish a rule that simply says, “When a well-meaning adult asks you to do something reasonable, you do it because that’s the polite thing to do.” Teachers are well-meaning adults, and homework is a reasonable request. If you choose not to do your homework, you’re effectively being rude to the teacher. In such a case, you can tell your child that they need to complete their homework, but the conversation doesn’t have to involve grades at all – it’s about manners.

a mom pointing out her daughter's bad manners

And your child gets to live with whatever natural consequences result from their choices. This could mean having to stay home and complete their missing homework instead of going out with friends. This could mean having to retake a class over the summer because they failed it. This could mean having fewer options after high school. In all such cases, it’s important that the child feels the unpleasant emotional consequences of their choices because that’s what will motivate them to make better choices in the future.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Sometimes, however, students take too much ownership of their grades, meaning they become single-mindedly obsessed with them. There’s more to life than school, and there’s more to school than grades. It’s good to be proactively in charge of your own learning and your own academic future, but this should never come at the detriment of your physical and mental health.

Some kids may feel a very strong need to earn high marks in school, but they also need balance. They need a social life. They need exercise. They need sleep. They need play. They need to remember that they are more than their grades.

However, very few kids get to be so hyper-focused on grades without a parent accidentally setting a similar example in their personal or professional life. So if your child is in this category, take a look at how you’re spending your time. Are you making time for rest and recovery from stress? Are you giving yourself permission to be human? Modeling these things is a powerful way to help your child learn to find balance between their academic and personal lives.

Not Caring Might Be a Defense

Lastly, it’s important to point out that many kids put on a façade of apathy as a defense mechanism. The reality is, they do care. They want to do well in school. They want to build a bright future for themselves. But they’re struggling, and it’s safer to say “I don’t care,” than to say “I don’t know how” or “I can’t.”

a teenager quietly struggling

They see other students being productive and getting their schoolwork done on time, and they see grown-ups working hard every day, and they don’t know how to do the same. They mistakenly believe that getting things done and overcoming procrastination are all about mustering brute-force willpower. They don’t know about smart willpower strategies that make it easier to do what you need to do. They don’t know how to generate their own motivation in order to beat procrastination. They need to see parents model these strategies.

They see other students scoring well on tests, and they don’t know how to do the same. They mistakenly believe that test grades are just about how smart you are. They imagine that studying effectively just means putting in tons of time. They don’t know about the power of spaced repetition or self-testing. They might need a tutor to guide them toward these techniques.

When students know how to do well, they are much more likely to admit that they care about their grades or, more importantly, demonstrate that they care through their choices.

Nature as a Biology Lesson

a beautiful butterfly among bright green leaves

It’s springtime, which is one of the best times to go observe biology in action. If you go out into a park that has a forest, such as Carkeek, Seward, or Discovery in Seattle, you can see quite a lot if you look for it.

As you look, I want you to think about the strategies that plants and animals are using. Ask yourself why they’re doing what they’re doing and why they are the way they are. The features of these organisms are products of natural selection. As such, they all serve the purpose of helping them survive and reproduce. When you see something unusual, try to figure out what its purpose might be.

Also keep your eyes out for examples of concepts you might have learned in a biology class, such as symbiosis, decomposers, and convergent evolution. They’re all out there. They’re all real. The joy of spring is in the details, and part of that joy is pondering the biology revealed by those details.

Here are some of my favorite examples.

Right now, the smaller plants in the underbrush and the younger trees already have their leaves, but the old, tall trees don’t. Have you ever wondered why? Well, the younger trees and bushes need to capture as much sunlight as they can before the tall trees grow their leaves. The forest might seem like a peaceful place, but there is fierce competition among the photosynthesizers for access to those precious solar rays.

a trail in Discovery Park in springtime with dense undergrowth

But then, why don’t the big trees just make their leaves now too? Why do they wait until later in the spring? I don’t know for sure, but I think they wait due to the risk of snowfall. If a big leaf maple grows its leaves too early, and then we get a once-in-10-years spring snowstorm, its enormous branches won’t be able to hold up all the extra weight of snow-covered leaves. So rather than risk breaking branches, it waits, knowing it will dominate the competition for sunlight come summer. The smaller trees and bushes have to risk it because this is their only chance, but they’re also taking a smaller risk. Their branches are lighter and more flexible, so they’re less likely to break if it snows.

A big leaf maple tree covered in moss and licorice ferns

You might also notice some moss and ferns piggybacking on a big maple in order to get a leg up. As my friend Ross likes to say, it’s “life on life on life!” They’re probably not doing the tree any favors by setting up residency on its trunk and branches, but they’re also not harming it. If they did, they might lose their home! This is a form of symbiosis known as commensalism, in which one species benefits from another without offering anything in return (but also without causing harm).

Down on the forest floor, you can probably find some dead trees that have fallen over. There is a good place to look for mushrooms (but please don’t eat them!). Mushrooms are decomposers. They break down dead plants, helping to create more soil and feeding themselves in the process. The coolest thing is that most of the fungus is inside the dead tree, and the visible mushroom is just the fruiting body it uses to reproduce!

mushrooms growing out of a nurse log

As you walk around the forest, it’s fun to remember that there are vast networks of underground fungi trading nutrients with plants through their roots. These mycorrhizal networks are an example of mutualism, a form of symbiosis in which both species benefit. Trees actually use these root-fungi networks to share resources and even information with each other! Check out this TED talk to learn more.

This is an ecosystem in action.

A pileated woodpecker with a bright red head

Now, if you’re lucky, you might spot a pileated woodpecker, banging its head against a dead tree in an effort to find bugs or grubs to eat. (You’ll probably hear it before you see it.) But wait, if you or I banged our head against a tree like that, we’d get a concussion! How does the woodpecker survive all those blows? The answer is as surprising as it is weird. The woodpecker has several adaptations to accommodate all that headbanging, but the most interesting one is that its tongue is wrapped around the back of its brain for cushioning!1 How cool is that?! Click here to see a picture of this. The long tongue can also be extended for fishing insects out of holes.

If you’re really lucky, you might see an owl. Though mostly nocturnal, you can sometimes see them during the day. But if it’s hunting, you won’t hear it. I once had one fly right over my shoulder, completely silent. Owls hunt rodents that have excellent hearing, so their feathers are designed to make no noise as they fly.

a barred owl sitting on a tree branch

Just walking around your neighborhood, you can probably find a rosemary bush in bloom. The rosemary bush is flowering, which makes it an angiosperm. But it has needles, like a fir tree, which is a gymnosperm. Gymnosperms reproduce by making cones (think pine cones). Since those are two completely different lineages of plants, the rosemary’s needles are an example of convergent evolution. Just as dolphins independently evolved bodies and fins that are much like those of sharks, rosemary evolved photosynthesizing needles rather than leaves that are much like those of its very distant fir tree cousins. (They’re also delicious!)

A rosemary bush with lavender flowers

One thing I like to do in the spring is look at flowers, and not just because they’re beautiful. Flowers also have a lot to teach about evolutionary strategies.

Many flowering plants first produce leaves, then flowers, and then berries. Thimbleberries and blackberries are good examples. And this strategy makes sense: Produce leaves to collect solar energy, use some of that energy to make flowers in order to attract pollinators (such as bees). Once pollinated, they can produce seeds. Finally, using glucose created during photosynthesis, they can wrap those seeds in fruit in order to entice animals to eat them. When animals eat the fruit, they end up spreading the seeds around.

cherry blossoms

Other plants, like cherry trees, start with flowers, using energy saved from last summer. Later, they’ll produce leaves to capture energy, photosynthesize, grow, and store some energy for next spring. The funny thing about flowers is that we like them even though they’re not designed to attract us – they’re designed to attract pollinators. And many flowers look very different under ultraviolet light, which is how bees see them.

a bee pollinating a daisy

So then why do we like flowers in the first place? Humans tend to like things that helped our ancestors survive and thrive – that’s how human nature works. But flowers don’t do me any good. So why do I think flowers are beautiful? On this mystery, I have two ideas. One is that flowers are simply an indicator of a thriving ecosystem, and a thriving ecosystem would have been full of plants and animals that my ancestors could have eaten. The second idea is that flowers often precede fruit. You can’t have blueberries without first having flowering blueberry bushes that get pollinated. So if I enjoy going to the places where there are flowers, I’ll know where to find berries. I might even get there first!

wild blue huckleberries

Aside from the berries they produce, plants don’t take too kindly to being eaten. To prevent herbivorous munching, they’ve evolved various defenses. Thorns clearly say “don’t eat me.” Stinging nettles send a similar message, though clever humans know you can boil them to get rid of the stinging part.

A thorny devil's club bush with a cluster of red berries up high

Devil’s club is particularly interesting. During the summer, when it has fruit, you’ll notice that the fruit is up high, in the middle, and guarded by copious thorns and spiky leaves. The signal is clear: This fruit is not for deer, and it’s not for people. It’s for birds. Why is this a good strategy? Because birds are better at spreading seeds.

My goodness science is fun!

Want to learn more? Check out my friend Ross’s YouTube Channel, Nerdy About Nature. He’ll teach you all about the plants of the Pacific Northwest!

1 “Why Does a Woodpecker Not Bash Its Brains In When It Pecks?”