When I was in Paris recently, I noticed many unique differences between the vast, cosmopolitan city and what I call I home in Los Angeles. Aside from the apparent lack of public restrooms and the insane amount of crepe vendors, I also noticed that almost everyone I spoke to could speak English fluently. And not only could they speak English, they were also proficient in a third language like German or Italian. Most people I spoke to in France had learned English for seven to ten years already, making my two years of high school French seem like une blague. ( A joke for you non-French speakers out there)
After looking into this more, I began to realize that it wasn’t just the French who could speak foreign languages well. I’ve spoken with individuals my age from Germany, Switzerland, China and Belgium; all with the same results. It’s no surprise that over 53 percent of Europeans can speak a second language, while only 18 percent of Americans reported being able to speak a language other than English. This figure is nothing short of a national travesty, but it has garnered almost no attention in the media or mainstream society.
And why is that? The ramifications of our collective decision not to invest in foreign language are huge. In fact, these consequences have even materialized on a local level at my high school. After speaking with current students, it became apparent that the Spanish classes offered are falling short in numerous areas. Instead of classes designed to promote fluency, the emphasis is solely placed on fulfilling the mandatory two-year language requirement. Instead of attempting to speak the language in class, teachers only teach the bare minimum needed to pass a Scantron test. And instead of instilling a lifelong appreciation of language, these classes turn promising students into apathetic individuals only looking for an easy “A.”
This environment that students are placed in is far from an accurate representation of what language really is. A student might leave his Spanish class knowing how to conjugate 21 separate irregular verbs, but it won’t do him any good if he can’t hold a basic two-minute conversation with a native speaker.
Language itself is an incredibly dynamic entity, but the vast majority of American high school classrooms simply aren’t reflecting that. In an interesting blog article, economist Bryan Caplan argued that America’s foreign language program is broken beyond repair, as only one in one hundred individuals reported attaining fluency in a language through high school courses.
I don’t agree that our system is completely broken, but the fact that only one in one hundred high school students achieve fluency illustrates the momentous problem that is in our hands. With the world becoming increasingly interconnected every year, it will become more and more important to have bilingual individuals capable of rising to the occasion and facilitating meaningful conversation between borders.
Even within the United States, English can no longer be relied upon as the principal means of communication. It is estimated that by 2020, there will be over 40 million Spanish speakers in the US; a more than 233% increase since 1980.
With these sort of figures on the table, it quickly becomes clear that Americentrist beliefs on language learning just don’t cut it anymore. The United States can no longer sit by and expect the entire world to learn English, because it won’t happen. America has and always will be a great melting pot; a place where cultures and languages collide to form extraordinary connections. In fact, English isn’t even our official language; we don’t have one and its for a good reason.
The American people need to make the choice to invest more in foreign languages, and they need to do it soon to catch up with major world powers. Chinese students learn English starting in third grade, and most European students learn a language beginning when they’re between 6 and 9 years old. The average American starts learning a language at 14 or 15 years old, and the education that he or she gets is for the most part, woefully inadequate and inaccessible.
It’s time to stand up for foreign language education in the United States, and improve millions of young people’s lives by allowing them to communicate with countless other individuals across the world. Building a more peaceful world, fostering a more global understanding; these all come from an education in a foreign language. So what are we waiting for? Let’s make language learning a priority in America.
Written By: Sam Gorman
Leave a comment below with your experience learning a foreign language in high school, and let me know why you feel a foreign language education is a necessity for the US.