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Americans need to learn foreign languages

(Ann Fisher/ Flickr)

“What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.” This joke, popular in linguistic circles, accurately describes the prevalent attitude toward language learning in the United States. This national lack of motivation to learn foreign languages negatively affects American students. Although public schools in the US do teach foreign languages, their inadequate methods, late start and lack of emphasis all contribute to language education that does not prepare students for life in a globally connected world.

In most of the world, it is rare to find an educated person who only speaks one language. In America, this is common. Americans are far behind in foreign language skills, with only 18 percent speaking a second language compared to 53 percent of Europeans.

The history of language learning in the US is complex. Before World War I, foreign languages classes for children were much more common. However, as the war progressed, nativism increased and only speaking English became a way to show your support and pride for the US. People were too busy fearing their neighbors to learn to communicate with them. Language education was removed from most elementary schools, and the language that was affected the most was German. It had previously been widely taught in America, but people did not want their children learning the enemy’s language. This attitude has had long-lasting effects for all foreign language education.

In 2015, our current president Donald Trump said, “We’re a nation that speaks English, and I think that while we’re in this nation, we should be speaking English.” This quote exemplifies harmful beliefs that hold Americans back from learning and stigmatize those who speak other languages.

Today, the American attitude toward language education is motivated not only by fear of outsiders but also by apathy. Many Americans are not interested in learning another language because they believe that English is becoming so widespread that it would be unnecessary. However, an estimated 75 percent of people in the world do not speak it. While the language is spreading, it is not as global as many think it is. It is hypocritical for Americans to expect others to learn their language and not hold themselves to the same standard.

These attitudes lead to a very late start in language education, which is another reason why American students are so disinclined to learn languages. Language programs need to start earlier, as is common in Europe. Most European students begin learning a second language in elementary school, and by the time American students start their second language in high school, European students are already starting their third. It has been proven that it is easier for children to acquire new language skills than adults. American students struggle with languages because they are introduced at exactly the wrong time when the brain has finished its initial rapid spurt of language acquisition and has largely forgotten the necessary skills.

Another factor that makes it harder for American students to learn foreign languages is the way these classes are taught. Most high school graduates will take four years of a language and then be unable to communicate in that language. These classes often teach students how to memorize lists of vocabulary, not how to actually converse in a language. The most effective language learning method, called immersion, relies on using it constantly. This strategy is rarely used in American language classes.

Students may also lack interest in learning a new language because of their severely limited options. They do not realize what a wealth of possible languages there are to learn.  Language is not one-size-fits-all, and schools should have more options for students who are curious about other possibilities.

Our current methods for language education do not work, that does not mean it should be abandoned, but that the system should be improved. If language requirements were removed from high schools and colleges, the US would only fall further behind other countries, only making the issue worse.

American students must learn language skills to compete in the global economy. These skills are vital in communicating and doing business. “To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared in 2010, “Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.” By only speaking English, Americans severely limit their opportunities.

Jessica Primavera is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at jprimavera@umass.edu.

Comments
8 Responses to “Americans need to learn foreign languages”
  1. David Hunt 1990 says:

    I absolutely concur that people should learn languages. I’m trying to reprise and build on my Hebrew; my children are learning that language too, plus Russian and Spanish. It’s a good thing.

    But never mind the ideological issues that the author brings up, which are valid (and I DO agree that English should be made the official language of the US). There’s the logistical…

    In Europe, I can get in a car and drive 100 miles and be in a different country; 500 miles and I’ve crossed several countries. Here in the US I can drive twice that and still be in America. We’re simply not exposed to a multiplicity of languages like many parts of the world.

  2. Stefan Herlitz says:

    For once I agree with David – there’s a good reason that Americans don’t learn foreign languages at anywhere near the rate Europeans do, that being, for regular Americans, they’re not of much use. America is a gigantic place, full of English speakers, and one of our two neighboring countries also speaks primarily English. Knowing a foreign language simply isn’t of much use to most Americans, particularly outside urban areas where non-English speakers are few and far between.

    Further, this lack of access and exposure to foreign language speakers also makes it much harder for Americans to become fluent even if they want to. My father is from Sweden, but he never tried to teach my brothers and me Swedish, because here in Massachusetts there are very few Swedes to be found with whom to use the language. I’ve since learned a fair amount, but even visiting Europe it’s still difficult to use it much, since Scandinavians almost universally are fluent in English.

  3. Sitting Bull says:

    I speak German fluently and French passably. This is dumb luck on my part of having parents with those native tongues and who wanted to pass along their heritage. It is a LOT of work, but worth it. I suspect Mr. Herlitz’s father didn’t avoid teaching them Swedish because of the lack of local usage, but because it is too difficult for most people to make a living and also teach their children a second language. I can understand this because I do not teach my own children for just that reason. Just look at the Latinos who come to the US. They really have the worst of both worlds because they do not learn proper English nor proper Spanish. This has been going on for 2 generations now.

    Having spent a lot of time with foreigners, while I am appreciative that many speak some English, the ability to do so is extremely overstated. Only the most educated/experienced have any real fluency in English. The vast majority are barely conversational, at best. So let’s not beat ourselves up too much. Between the British Empire and American dominance since WWII, English has been a necessity. That is the only reason other cultures have endeavored to learn it.

    Knowing other languages is a good thing in and of itself. It’s a wonderful skill and can bring much joy and cultural understanding to the individual. But let’s not overstate it’s importance, nor the rest of the world’s ability with our language.

  4. David Hunt 1990 says:

    @Stefan: Wonders never cease!

    I agree with you on the practice part.

    My wife’s native language is Russian; she speaks it to our kids. They understand, but don’t really speak it… but are definitely being exposed to the sounds! In the case of Hebrew, even as I learn I teach it actively to them (they attend Hebrew / religious school too). And they’re learning Spanish in school.

    But PRACTICE is the issue, as you said. Where I live there are precious few Hebrew (or Russian) speakers.

  5. Lincoln says:

    @David I am fluent in Vietnamese, Russian and English. When I moved to Russia at the age of 6 it took me a while to learn the language. Because of the difficulty of the Russian language, I would always speak Vietnamese at home.

    I noticed that either in Vietnamese or Russian families in the US kids tend to speak English to their parents or peers. I would say that is because of the easiness of the English language. For example, a lot of my Vietnamese friends, who live in Russia, have a much better Vietnamese than their peers, who live in the States.

    I agree with the point that because of the universality of English Americans do not have the motivation to learn other languages. However, I do not agree with the “logistical” reason (how big America is and no exposure to other languages). Just think of a Chinese or Vietnamese person learning English or French. They will never have a chance to travel to America or Europe to get the exposure to the language. However, I am sure they have a much better command of their 2nd or 3rd language. In fact, I think Americans even have advantages in learning other languages because they have more exposure to native speakers of the foreign language they are learning.

    I am currently learning Chinese and French in the US. I believe it’s so much easier to learn it in America than in Russia, Vietnam or any other country because I will never have so much exposure to Chinese or French in other countries. (Chinatown, Chinese students, French peers, TAs or professors, etc.) So I believe learning Spanish or Chinese in America is much easier than learning it in let’s say Russia or Sweden.

    I believe it comes down to the educational system, hard work and motivation to learn other languages.

  6. David Hunt 1990 says:

    @Lincoln:

    Certainly I would agree that more languages are available to learn here.

    Motivation: I agree.

    Hard work: I agree.

    My big issue is PRACTICE. (Well, and time.)

  7. Ryan McKinney says:

    Yes, domestically there’s not much need to be bilingual. As stated earlier you can drive 3000 miles across this country and along the way nearly everyone you meet will be fluent in English. According to the 2011 US Census, about 96% of Americans over 5 years of age speak English at least “well” or “very well”. Even on a global scale, more American’s don’t learn another language is because they don’t have a need to. The second language of the 53% of Europeans, and for many others around the world, is typically English. For many, if someone knows your language, there’s little reason for you to learn theirs.

    https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acs-22.pdf

  8. Edouard says:

    Have you guys checked out http://www.langroo.com? They teach Spanish, Chinese, English and French online through Facebook.

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