Why the US Should Embrace Languages

When I was very young I remember being fascinated by an illustrated Spanish dictionary, which I memorized cover to cover and then asked my mom if I could take Spanish classes. She said no; she didn’t want my teachers to think she was setting me above the other students. I wasn’t able to learn Spanish until the sixth grade, by which point much of the glamor had gone out of it. Even then I was painfully aware of the limits my substandard parochial school imposed on me; I wanted to learn more languages, but they had none to offer. In the end, I had to steal a French textbook from the library and teach myself.

This is an all too common example of the United States’ approach to knowing foreign languages: that it’s pretentious and superfluous, that as native speakers of the universal language, why should we even bother? We leave off teaching a foreign language until students have reached adolescence and have lost the ability to absorb languages effortlessly the way children do. In times of crisis and budget cuts, spurred by the need to pander to the math-and-reading-obsessed No Child Left Behind legislation, foreign language programs are generally the first to go in schools.

For decades we have been declining in our ability to communicate on even ground with the rest of the world, lagging far behind Europe and Asia who make it a priority to teach students English from an early age. More than 300 million Chinese are currently studying English, while American middle and high schools reciprocating is a relatively new development; currently 4% of American schools offer classes in Mandarin Chinese, with only 2% offering classes in Arabic. And now, at a point when our international relations are at their most tenuous, it’s crucial that the United States step up to the standards set by the rest of the world. Fortunately, we have Europe’s more successful language programs to take inspiration from, most notably Finland’s.

Finnish schools favor an immersion method of teaching languages, with most children learning English as soon as they enter school at the age of seven. Certain schools even give students the option to have all their classes in English, minus one class in Finnish literacy. Swedish, Finland’s second official language, is compulsory in grades 7 through 9, after which more opportunities for languages—most commonly German—are introduced at the end of secondary education. That Finnish 15-year-olds achieved top tier scores in math, science, and reading when compared to other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that this focus on language, and the critical thinking and logic skills that goes along with it, reaps holistic benefits.

In an increasingly global and competitive environment where cooperation and cultural sensitivity are more important than ever, the United States needs to handle language acquisition with more energy and urgency. In recent years, there has been a push to provide more widespread language programs to American students, with many colleges venturing beyond the customary Romance languages to offer Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Korean, Farsi, Russian, and others. Public schools in Virginia have started offering extracurricular classes in Chinese and Arabic, and waves of parents across the country are lobbying school boards to expand language programs.

While these movements are certainly helpful, the real change needs to be in the United States’ attitude towards foreign languages. Rather than just another elective for graduation, a language course must be viewed as something imperative to education and directly applicable to our lives. It must be treated as our greatest asset: a tool that can help us achieve mutual understanding and multiculturalism, and in doing so unlock our full potential.

Do you agree that the US could benefit from paying more attention to language learning?