Why Language Matters for Everything

How many languages do you speak? Only 7% of American college kids study a language.  Think this is a problem? It is a huge socio-economic-global-geopolitical-security one!  Amelia Friedman didn't set out to start a business learning languages from her peers - like Bengali, Thai, Tamil... but she has.  We need to communicate like never before - and language is how.  So be a part of the solution - try learning a language and give to Student Language Exchange to make sure our next generation does. 


em·pa·thy (n): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Building empathy has been a priority among parents and educators for decades. Why? If the next generation of leaders cares for others in their community and across the world, they just might be able to make one another’s lives better.

More recently, empathy has become a priority for business leaders. In fact, entrepreneurs regularly use empathy maps when trying to understand their target customer. Empathy has become part of an entrepreneur’s tool belt, helping them rise above the competition.

There is debate about whether empathy is something that can be taught. I believe we can teach empathy by listening to and learning from people who are different from us. By asking questions. By meeting others on their level. By immersing ourselves in another culture.

In other words: We can build empathy by learning another language.

lan·guage (n): the system of communication used by a particular community or country

Language is so much more than a collection of words and rules for the order in which they should be spoken. It includes all aspects of communication: the way you should greet someone when they’re in mourning, the requirement that a gift need be refused three times before accepted, or the importance of covering one’s hair when in public— that is all a part of language.

A language is a doorway into another culture; it paves the road toward empathy.

ex·change (n): an act of giving one thing and receiving another in return

I didn’t originally found the Student Language Exchange with the intention of changing the world. The first courses we ran were a reflection of my curiosity and the curiosity of students around me. We just wanted to learn from one another’s experiences, so we ran semester-long courses where our peers could share their languages and cultures.

We came to understand dowry practices in Kenya, limitations of French language in Haiti and the aftereffects of English colonialism in Calcutta. We gifted one another the knowledge that we had gleaned in the first 20 years of our lives. And we learned to listen, ask questions, and empathize.

My formal coursework in language didn’t always allow me to really understand the people that spoke it, and the communities I could learn about at my university were limited, mostly to those of Europe.

At last count, there were 197,757 U.S. college students studying French and 64 studying Bengali. Globally, there are 193 million people who speak Bengali and only 75 million who speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan tells us that 95% of all language enrollments are in a Western language.

We tend to learn about cultures that are similar to our own. But this is holding us back. It keeps us from building empathy, from pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, and from building bridges between peoples.

Our world isn’t perfect. Tragedies, whether man-made as in the case of the Rohingya Crisis or natural in the case of the Nepal earthquakes, plague our global society. We can’t be perfect either, but we can strive to empathize with those affected and respectfully communicate with people in these regions. Through open communication—and through connecting our privilege with their opportunity—we can do our part to make the world a little bit better.

In our SLE courses, students learn to think differently; they learn about other languages and cultures so that they can better understand different people.

I may not have originally intended to build a social enterprise, but somewhere along the way we began to see the impact we were having on our students and the communities they touched.

Today, only 7% of American college students are studying a language. Few Americans—our next-generation leaders—take the time to learn about a new culture and to build the skills they need to communicate with its stakeholders. If we can push that needle a little further to the right, we can make an immense impact.

And as these students will tell you, we already well on our way. Will you join us?


Amelia Friedman founded the Student Language Exchange while a student at Brown University (’14). An active advocate of global engagement, she has written about language education for the Atlantic, USA Today, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. She is the product of a marriage between a Jew from Maryland and a Catholic from Montevideo, Uruguay that demonstrate the importance of empathy every day. Amelia is a current Halcyon fellow living in Washington, DC.

In full disclosure, I have been Amelia's mentor since her time at Brown and am on the board of SLE, with great pride and admiration for her work.

Result of a #RCUS? Libyian & California Kids Sharing Art

Have you just started grinning when reading something? This post by Tomas Quinonez-Riegos will do just that! While being the international program director for iTeach, using video to teach English to kids all over the world (e.g., Cambodia, Panama, etc.) and spending his first semester junior year in Japan, Tomas has started yet another new venture, which he shares with us here.  How did this come about? By Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects #RCUS!  Read on, revel in his excitement and in the impact it can have.

Just over two months ago as I wrapped up my preparations for a semester abroad in Kyoto, Japan, I decided to take a quick look at the TED activity in the area.  I am an unashamed fanboy and was curious to see how I could get involved in the TED community of Japan.  To my utter delight, I discovered that there was to be a TEDxKyoto conference during my second weekend in the city.  I applied immediately, held my breath, and let out a shout of joy and excitement a few days later when I was accepted.  On the day of the conference I arrived nearly an hour before the doors even opened to make sure that there was absolutely nothing I would miss, nothing I didn’t experience.  I had to make sure that I was able to soak up every last drop of TED that was offered.  I was not disappointed.  My twelve hours at the conference was an unbelievably stimulating torrent of inspiration, passion, and elegance that began with the gorgeous piece by a 13th generation Noh performer and continued with a series of Japanese and foreign speakers giving talks on their incredibly innovative work and honest personal stories.  From the artist who sat next to me to the people I met during the intermittent break periods, I found only openness and warm hearts.  One particular encounter, however, has carried on well beyond the conference.

During the lunch period we were served small, boxed meals and encouraged, in the collaborative spirit of TED, to sit and converse with other attendees we had not met or did not know.  After I received my lunch box, the man "Introduce Yourself" Drawing by California kid to Libyian Kidwho happened to be behind me in line met my eye and he complimented me on my bowtie.  I thanked him and as we started to walk toward the dining tables he asked me if I was sitting with anyone.  I told him that I was recently arrived into Kyoto and knew almost nobody, so I suggested that we sit together.  As we made light conversation I learned he was a 30-year old salary-man working at a pharmaceutical company in nearby Osaka.  When I asked him why he came to the conference, what he hoped to gain, he completely lit up.  He told me that although he is more or less satisfied with his day-job, he is a staunch believer the idea of art as a means of universal communication and dreamed about somehow connecting communities of children around the world through their artwork.  I was absolutely thrilled by the idea and could hardly contain my excitement as we bounced ideas off of each other, and furiously brainstormed the potential of the concept until the end of the lunch period.  The remainder of the conference fanned the spark we had ignited such that before we parted ways, we had decided on a follow-up meeting in Osaka a few days later.

From that meeting, the organization He(ART) Exchange was born.  The concept behind the project is that dialogue between communities that share neither cultural, geographical, nor linguistic commonalities is not only"Introduce Yourself" Drawing by a California kid to a Libyian kid possible, but critical to developing well-rounded understandings of today’s world.  By using weekly art projects as the “language” of this dialogue, students have a “conversation” with their partners abroad and in so doing are not only exposed to the lived reality of other cultures and peoples, but also develop an understanding of art as a valid and powerful tool of self-expression.  This, I believe, will have lasting effects as participants will perhaps one day be able to use their art to deal with and confront the various obstacles they will face throughout the remainder of their life.  From this idea, we developed a rough organizational model, and as my partner worked on developing the website and the legal documents, I began reaching out to schools, teachers, and educational non-profits in my network.  After three weeks we had finalized our first partnership between two middle schools in California and Libya, with schools in Panamá, Argentina, Indonesia, and Japan also interested in the project.  At this point we are still not sure what the impact of the project will be, yet based on the enthusiasm thus far from the teachers and students, we will try it out regardless.  I, for one, look forward to observing what eventually will sprout from the program.  I expect we may be pleasantly surprised. 

Summer Hits to Start the Fall..

The Fall is upon us - routines, school, 'hectivity' of life returns...so enjoy some remnants of summer by some Endangered Puffin off Eastern Egg Rock, Maine fabulous people! These were the top posts of August (mine was this...just kidding...kind of)

I'm off to my 'retreat' at home in Maine on Friday September 6th and heading down to BIF9 on the 17th. If you haven't yet signed up - do so now! And don't forget to sign up for #Innospirits on the 17th

The Economic and Social Impact of Language

With the rise of China, India and other Asian countries, what languages do we teach in school? Bengali? Punjabi? Nope. Think this is a bit of an issue for our economic and political future? Ayup! So does Amelia Friedman.  That's why, she founded and runs the Student Language Exchange. As she starts her senior year at Brown, her sense of urgency is increasing....as should ours! This has profound implications for our innovation and economic success and national security. You can read more here about the impact of not changing our education and economic systems.


Six months ago, I decided that I wanted to learn Bengali. It’s not offered at my school, nor is it offered at any other college or university in Rhode Island. There’s no Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur or Livemocha or BBC Languages or Babel or LingQ. I’ve resorted to Skyping with a tutor in Dhaka.

Maybe you’re not shocked. Nobody learns Bengali.

In 2009, 97 American undergraduates studied Bengali, the 7th most spoken language in the world. Translation? Less than 100 American students were studying a language spoken by 193 million people in the world. Consequently, we aren’t being prepared for engagement in a country with a $2,100 per capita GDP. Some major news stories about Bangladesh have reached my Twitter feed in the past few months: A factory collapsed and over a thousand lives are lost. Hundreds of thousands are suffering due to groundwater contaminated by nuclear waste. Hundreds died in a killing spree committed by police and other government officials. We can report on these tragedies in our news outlets with some interpreted interviews, and perhaps send basic aid, but we face a stiff language barrier when we communicate with those that are most affected. And, without open and honest conversations, is it appropriate for us to try to help?

Bengali, Javanese, Lahnda (Punjabi), Telugu, Vietnamese, Marathi, Tamil. A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of some of these languages. Now I know that they’re among the 20 most spoken worldwide, and they’re not offered at most American universities. And, in 2010, Arne Duncan announced that 95% of American college students in language classes were taking European languages.

This is paralyzing. It doesn’t promote growth in our global economy, it’s not supporting global politics and communication, and it’s a major concern for our nation’s security interests. We are also not preparing to engage with some of the world’s poorest populations.

But what does that mean for our future?

95%. That does not reflect the skills the next generation will need as we face the political, social, economic and environmental battles of our shared future 

What do you care about?


World peace?


Gender equality?

Access to water?

Education and literacy?

Our generation faces a society that has adopted English as a global language, but we cannot forget that learning other languages initiates deeper connections and more trustful relationships between diverse communities. Language is more than a pragmatic communication system. Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Through shared language, students can become sensitive global activists and pursue productive community partnerships.

You may ask yourself: Why should I learn one of these underrepresented languages? Why should my child be studying Vietnamese instead of French? Guaraní instead of Spanish? What is the value of learning Punjabi or Bengali when the educated elite already speak English?

For a moment, discard the notion that everyone speaks English. Ask yourself: Who is “everyone” in that scenario? In many of these communities, the people who would most benefit from an outreached hand aren’t the people who learned fluent English in school.

For one final comparison, compare our map to a map of the Human Development Index:

Languages Taught:

 Human Development:

In these maps, we see that most American students study languages that are associated with high human development indices.

How are we going to contribute to solutions without communicating with those who are most affected? How will we even be able to identify the struggles that plague these communities? Will we be able to understand how to find sources of problems and support communities as they seek change? Can we empower communities with a hand up instead of a handout?

In 2004, the Modern Language Association noted a sense of crisis in higher language education driven by what was called “the nation’s language deficit.” Students are not learning languages at a rate that supports global interests, even those labeled “critical languages” by our State Department— Bengali, for example, is among these 13 languages. How can we begin to address this deficit if we cannot even find opportunities to learn these underrepresented languages?

Right now, there are people across the world who are left out of the conversation. They’re forgotten. It is time for us to transform our perception of language, culture, and engagement in this ever-shrinking world.

Spread our message by sharing this blog post, sharing our Facebook posts, retweeting us, or just emailing out our website! If you want to learn more, email amelia@studentlanguageexchange.org