Newswise — The first time Mary Ann Lyman-Hager, Ph.D., heard someone speak another language, she was five years old.
On a family trip to Montreal, she and her mother had entered a shop when a saleswoman asked in French, "Que désirez-vous?" ("How can I help you?")
The startled girl hid behind her mother and began to cry. "I remember telling my mother, 'Make her talk right!'" Dr. Lyman-Hager laughs. "I had sadly never heard another language spoken in my life."
Born in Iowa, her small hometown had "almost no diversity whatsoever," she recalls, and there was little indication yet that the kindergartner would one day become a professor of European studies and French at San Diego State University; speak four languages, including French, Spanish, German, and English; and lead a world-renowned language center.
Beyond the Mother Tongue
While still a child, Lyman-Hager became fascinated with the French language and culture. After summer French programs and French classes in high school, she went on to earn a bachelor's degree in French literature from Cornell College, spending her junior year in Dijon, France.
Then came a master's in French literature from the University of Arizona and a Ph.D. and M.Ed. in education at the University of Idaho.
By the time she arrived at San Diego State in 1997, Lyman-Hager was ready for language learning to get the spotlight she felt it deserved.
As director of San Diego State's Language Acquisition Resource Center (LARC) — one of only nine national Language Training Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Defense — over the past 20 years, she has led a team that specializes both in teaching a wide variety of languages and instructing those who go on to teach languages themselves.
"LARC is a grand hub on this campus for language research and student learning," says Lyman-Hager, who was awarded a 2016 SDSU Office of Alumni Engagement's Distinguished Faculty award, the highest honor the campus bestows upon faculty.
"We're committed to creating materials … that appeal to all levels of language learning," from children and working professionals to members of the armed forces, she says. The center has a particular focus on instructing active military and Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) cadets across the country.
Lyman-Hager was also pivotal in securing more than $30 million in external funding for the campus, making her one of San Diego State's named "Top Principal Investigators."
"You never really know the impact you will have," she notes. "For me, I think working in this area of language and culture, we are increasing those opportunities for peace and understanding in the world."
Preparing Students for a Global Workplace
Employees who are fluent in more than one language are more desirable than ever.
According to a 2017 New American Economy report, the demand for bilingual workers has more than doubled over the past five years, with roughly 630,000 job postings in 2015 for applicants who can speak a second language.
Lyman-Hager and the LARC staff are preparing more workplace-ready graduates by training both students and language teachers that will help to fill this growing need.
"Bilingual speakers are … so important in terms of increasing cultural awareness and enhancing diversity," agrees Lyman-Hager, adding that "[those who speak more than one language] are just amazing in the way they are able to adjust in a situation, not only linguistically but culturally."
Going beyond traditional language learning, LARC offers experiences that help SDSU students develop expertise in a language that will directly help them in their chosen career. For example, a nursing student learning Chinese might find an internship at a nursing facility in China or one that serves a Chinese-speaking clientele in the U.S. The goal: to immerse students in not just the language, but the culture.
"It becomes so much more than just majoring in a language," Lyman-Hager notes.
'Language is What Unites Us All'
There are nearly 7,000 recognized languages in the world, according to Ethnologue.
"Language is what unites us all," says Lyman-Hager simply. "It is how we connect with other human beings. Mastering more than one language multiplies the number of ways we are able to interact and connect with the people of the world."
And, she stresses, we would do well to protect every tongue, no matter how few speakers it may have left. "Language encodes who we are and our unique experiences and ways of looking at the world," she continues. "When a language drops off the map, that unique vision is lost."
With her retirement from San Diego State slated for 2018, Lyman-Hager has reason to consider the impact of her time on the campus. "I hope one of the legacies we leave behind is to have trained and professionalized a number of language teachers."
"We need to preserve our languages," adds Lyman-Hager. "My mantra is: No language left behind."