America’s foreign language shortfalls

Foreign language in education holds more importance in Europe than America, despite its obvious benefits.

As a foreign language major at Portland State, I can be fairly overzealous when I am presented with an opportunity to utilize my target language outside the classroom.

I overheard a girl speaking Russian on the bus when I traveled during the holidays. I politely introduced myself and we began speaking. We spoke about Russia, our schools, where we were from and where we were heading. She told me how rare it was to meet an American who could hold a conversation in her native language.

That seemed odd, since there are a number of non-native Russian speakers around here thanks to our foreign language department at Portland State. Clearly this is not the case everywhere.

This interaction reminded me of how important it can be to know another language. I thought about how comforting it was to occasionally hear English when I was in Russia. I realized how language is such an important part of my identity.

It seemed that everywhere I went in Russia, whether it was an art museum or a Burger King, people often tried to make me feel more comfortable by using English. While I always insisted on using Russian, it was nice to know they were willing to use my native language. Such linguistic hospitality is not common in the United States and providing options for non-native speakers is often treated with obstinacy.

Sadly the United States has a big problem when it comes to learning other languages.

Only one quarter of Americans claim they are able to speak a second language well enough to hold a conversation, according to a Gallup poll.

Roughly 30 percent of Americans do not consider learning a foreign language important, according to the same poll.

Such responses make sense given the fact that 80 percent of 2011 Census participants answered they only use English at home.

At first glance, this information may not seem that troubling. After all, most of us don’t have the opportunity to use a language other than English in our daily lives. However, when you compare the United States to Europe, our foreign language shortfall becomes very obvious.

In Europe, over 50 percent of the population is able to hold a conversation in a second language and 25 percent are able to speak two foreign languages. In some European countries, such as Sweden, Luxembourg, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Slovenia, more than 90 percent of their populations speak at least two languages. Even Hungary, the European nation with the smallest amount of people who can speak an additional language, has 10 percent more than the United States.

Our language shortfalls may not necessarily be a consequence of America’s laziness or xenophobia, but the result of the lack of quality foreign language instruction in primary and secondary schools. The United States has no national foreign language mandate, which pales in comparison to the average European country.

In Europe, 73 percent of primary school students and 90% of secondary school students are studying English. In these countries most foreign language study starts before children turn 11 and begin as early as three years of age. While European countries like Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom only require the study of one foreign language, the vast majority make the study of two foreign languages compulsory.

When it comes to foreign language study in the United States, the situation is looking dismal.

Between 1997-2008, the percentage of public elementary schools that offered foreign language instruction decreased from 24 to 15 percent. In middle schools, foreign language instruction dropped from 75 to 58 percent. While the numbers have stayed roughly the same in high school, American students are missing the opportunity to learn foreign languages during a time when they are best able to learn.

Knowing a second language has more to offer outside the sphere of career and travel and even has a lot of lifelong benefits. Research compiled by the American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages shows the benefits to knowing more than one language transcend mere cultural competency and have significant impacts on brain function.

In controlled studies, bilingual children out-performed monolingual children on verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests. Bilingual children also performed better than monolingual children in areas of social problem solving. This research also shows that knowing a second language improves episodic and semantic memory at all age levels and even can offset age-related cognitive loss.

With this in mind, I think requiring the learning of a second language would be a beneficial for Americans.

Regardless, while learning another language has its practical benefits, the ability to transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries is an invaluable skill. It can bring people together in a more intimate and personal way.

At the end of the day, America’s blind insistence on monolingualism in the face of large immigrant populations is ridiculous and harmful in the long run.

Want to make American great again? Learn Spanish.