Why Do American High Schools Not Value Languages?


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)

Paris is beautiful, but one's experience is improved 10 times over if they at least try and speak French.
Paris is beautiful, but I wouldn’t have loved it nearly as much if I didn’t know how to speak French.

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.

Remember to follow Youngchange-Bestchange on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

For further reading, check out this great article on the Huffington Post about why language should be a national priority.

Or read about more flaws in the general education system, and what needs to change.

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8 thoughts on “Why Do American High Schools Not Value Languages?

  1. Learning another language can be a wonderful enrichment to your life because it opens doors to other ways of thinking and other ways of looking at the world.

    Why not start with Spanish (castilliano)?
    There’s so much opportunity in the U.S. to speak with mother tongue speakers.

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  2. While I understand your points, I stand on the other side. It’s not because I don’t think children should learn another language, but it’s important to address the practicalities.

    For English speaking countries, knowing a foreign language is not as valuable a skill as people like to believe. Unless you have a job where knowing another language is specifically helpful (translation, transportation, medicine, etc), there is very little use for it unless you niche yourself into working specifically with others who speak another language. If you don’t, it’s likely more worth the time and effort to outsource translation to those who specialize in that skill.

    Speaking multiple languages is a certain form of intelligence that not everyone is best at. Just as it’s not important or valuable for every person to understand how to replace a car engine, it’s not important for every person to have a strong handle on a language they’ll rarely need. This may differ based on location and demand. But for most of the US, this holds true.

    For English speaking countries, knowing a foreign language is correlated (on average) with a 4.5% pay increase. However, in non-English speaking countries, knowing English is correlated with a 20% pay increase because English is far closer to being an international language than any other language. This is why many countries teach children English and a young age. It’s not because they’re smarter. It’s because it’s practical.

    While there has been an increase in Spanish speaking in the US, it’s also worth noting that those speakers will likely know English or will be pressured into learning English in order to navigate a primarily English speaking landscape. Otherwise, they will likely stick to their own communities and rely on those in their community who do speak English to aid them.

    On another note: translation technologies have taken leaps and bounds. Your computer will translate entire websites. Smartphones can instantly translate the spoken words of an individual between any number of languages as well as translating text by merely pointing its camera at it. Most international communications occur in the digital realm these days. The tech industry has realized this and properly responded.

    Perhaps this comes off as a bit elitist, but it’s more a reality check on the real practicalities. I believe learning a foreign language is a beautiful thing that SHOULD be pursued by more students and individuals in the US. What I’ve found, however, is that my time learning Spanish in high school would have been better used learning other skills that may have been far more useful for me in life.

    There is more to language than merely the one you speak and languages other countries speak. The ability to speak to computers (programming), public speaking, non-verbal communication (body language), logic, conflict resolution and storytelling would have all been better use of the of the 400+ hours I spent learning a language that I rarely use (and therefore haven’t been able to become fluent in due to the lack immersion).

    What’s sad is that many children in the US barely have a handle on the mechanics of English. Perhaps these kids would be better served taking an extra English class than a foreign language.

    Language learning should be a priority in America, but until the adoption rate of English internationally changes (which, from I understand, is only increasing) English there are other communication skills that are greater value.

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    1. I find the statement above very narrow, which is what happens to students perceptions when they only learn one language. When you get to know another language, more then what google translate can do, you can understand people better. When you learn a language, you enter into a culture and you open your perspective. Your view of things is no longer narrow, but you have opened a whole new world. Students become empathetic because they understand where the Spanish, Chinese, or German kid is trying to say in English, because they have that background knowledge. Business men would make conscious decisions about things to say and do because they would understand the culture better and make better solid business connections. As I walk around with people only knowing one language, and me knowing four, I have noticed what a birds eye view I have of situations that they can’t even see a worms view of. So while there are other things “more important” to others, I would like my kids to be empathetic and understand things from a bigger point of view before making a decision, rather than sticking to a limited view.

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      1. I suppose (ignoring your jab at my intelligence and ability to perceive) that you could be correct that my education tainted my ability to see the same things that you see.

        But consider that perhaps the perspective you gain from learning multiple languages is only one form of birds-eye-view and that there is more than one way others gain perspective of other cultures, peoples, themselves and the world at large.

        While I (or others) may not know 4 verbal languages, I do know many other forms of communication that others do not know or understand. This gives me perspective that you may not have.

        Everyone has their own way of gaining perspective and growing. My ideas may not be as narrow as you suggest.

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  3. Google translate? That thing doesn’t give accurate translation 10% of the time rather than going to a country I love visiting and looking like completely lost I’d rather learn the language. Even if just common words so I can get around. Also learning another language helps you respect peoples culture and values.

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  4. I am learning French in school right now and I wish there were more languages to learn than French, Spanish, and German(depending on where you go to school) and it is hard to get good grades and hardly anyone really wants to learn it. Maybe if we could have more languages to offer, we might have more interest in learning in school than independent study which can be a bit harder to do and hard to keep track of with other things. It can also be a bit of a pain trying to learn two(one in school and one on my free time). I just spend more time learning French b/c I am getting credit for that than Japanese.

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    1. Thanks for commentating. I know exactly how you feel. I’m learning German by myself along with French in school and I know how hard it can be to stay motivated. I recently talked with my district’s superintendent about this so I hope I can get some follow up articles out there too. Good luck with your Japanese! -Sam

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