Americans need to learn foreign languages

By Jessica Primavera

(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 [email protected].