NDSU Spanish Lecturer Receives Emma Birkmaier Award for Language Advocacy

Last month Mary Thrond, a Spanish lecturer at NDSU, was awarded the Emma Birkmaier Award for her lifetime achievement in the teaching of world languages. This award goes to people who are very involved in teaching world languages and cultures and who are considered to be major contributors to the profession of language teaching.

“It’s an honor to receive this!” said Thrond. She is in her second year of teaching at NDSU and holds two master’s degrees, one from NDSU and one from the University of Salamanca in Spain. She taught Spanish at Concordia, MSUM, and the University of Minnesota Morris before coming to teach at NDSU.

According to a Pew Research study, only 20% of U.S. students learn a world language in school, which is much lower than schools in Europe. “It’s so important to be a global citizen, and I don’t think you can be that or understand the world without learning another language,” said Thrond. This belief is what motivates her to teach languages and advocate for increased access to language learning in the U.S.

The work that qualified Thrond for this award is primarily concerned with increasing world language learning in U.S. students. She’d love to see students across the U.S. start learning languages in elementary school and continue their learning until they can graduate high school with their seal of biliteracy.

To achieve this, Thrond meets yearly with members of Congress from Minnesota and North Dakota in Washington D.C. to stress the importance of teaching students to be global citizens and to be multilingual with the Joint National Committee for Languages, a lobbyist group that wants to raise awareness of language as an asset to American business and government.

Learning a language can be valuable for anyone, even those who aren’t planning to go into a field typically associated with speaking other languages. Thrond has often had former students mention to her that they wish they remembered more Spanish to use in their careers—even for those who went into careers that only require knowledge of English.

Knowing multiple languages is more directly valuable in many careers as well. Government intelligence programs look for people who speak multiple languages, especially Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Korean, and Persian, the five languages the National Security Agency has identified as the most critical to know to promote world peace, but also any other languages that would prove useful to the United States’ intelligence agencies.

NDSU language programs have recently taken a hit as the university plans to stop offering language programs for French and German in the upcoming school year. Students can still take those language classes through the Tri-College, but it’s not as easy as having them be offered through the school. “It was a tremendous loss.” Thrond said. “We need to know that even in the landlocked heartland speaking another language will be essential in the future.”

Even if they haven’t had the opportunity to start learning a language before college, it’s never too late for someone to learn a language. “The optimum age is before puberty and becoming fluent takes a lifetime…but I don’t think it’s ever too late to learn,” said Thrond. “Just like you’re always learning new vocabulary in your own language, you can still pick it up.”

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