Tennis highlights language skills

June 28, 2011


For millions and millions of tennis fans around the world, summer offers a plethora of thrills and memories. It gets no bigger than the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, each a unique and entertaining event.

But caught up in individual matches and rivalries, too often we ignore a major story playing out on our television sets: the global nature of these competitions.

Increasingly, tennis draws some of the world’s finest athletes, men and women of enormous energy and skill. Competitors in these tournaments come from more than 40 countries, making tennis one of the world’s premier international sporting events.

For years, certainly until the mid-1980s, tennis was dominated by Americans and Australians. Not so today. Of the eight 2011 French Open semi-finalists, one each came from China, France, Italy, Russia, Scotland, Serbia, Switzerland, and Spain.

Certainly, great entertainment comes from seeing so many exceptional athletes compete. But another part of the drama comes from hearing the personal stories of the individuals who play the game. Their voyages to tennis greatness are varied and compelling.

And luckily for the American audience, most of the stories are told in English: many professional tennis players are bilingual and even trilingual. They understand the clear advantage of being able to speak English, and it is common to hear a European or South American explain in English his/her strategy, analysis and background.

With clarity, this polyglot game reflects the world’s understanding of the importance of language: that speaking more than one language helps us not only to communicate but to understand other cultures in a multi-national world.

But there are even more benefits to learning language. In a recent essay in the New York Times, a researcher at York University in Toronto shows that bilingualism sharpens our thought patterns and makes our mental processes faster and more efficient. It makes multi-tasking easier. It even forestalls the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. On average, bilinguals showed Alzheimer’s symptoms five or six years later than those who spoke only one language.

Unfortunately, residents of the United States do not appreciate foreign languages as much as other countries do. Some telling facts:

• Enrollment in modern language courses at our colleges and universities has remained unchanged since 2006, at 8.6 per 100 total enrollments.

• This figure reached a high of 16.5 enrollments per 100 overall in 1980.

• The decline is best explained by a drop in language requirements at American colleges and universities and by an expansion in the number of disciplines studied.

• But the percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased significantly from 1997 to 2008: from 31 percent to 25 percent of all elementary schools and from 75 percent to 58 percent at all middle schools.

The bottom line is this: We should be encouraging our children to learn foreign languages, recognizing their fundamental importance to building relationships in an ever-changing world. And for the five million English language learners in K-12 education, the vast majority of whom are working on a second language, we should support a continued commitment to their first language, while encouraging their mastery of English.

We want our citizens to understand the world in which they live and the people they are living with. We want our citizens to be healthy. We want them to see both sides of every issue. We want them to be good thinkers. And we want our tennis players to speak the beautiful and ancient languages of their gracious hosts.

Gene Budig is the former chancellor/president of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and past president of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a vice president at the College Board in New York City.


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