“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 a language? American.” This joke, popular in language circles, accurately describes the widespread attitude toward language learning in the United States. This national lack of motivation to learn foreign languages negatively affects American students. Although schools public schools in the United States teach foreign languages, their inadequate methods, late start, and lack of accent all contribute to language education that fails to 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, it’s common. Americans lag far behind in foreign language skills, with only 18% speaking a second language compared to 53% of Europeans.
The history of language learning in the United States is complex. Before World War I, foreign language lessons for children were much more common. However, as the war progressed, nativism increased, and speaking only English became a way to show your support and pride for the United States. People were too busy fearing their neighbors to learn to communicate with them. Language teaching was removed from most elementary schools and the most affected language was German. It used to be widely taught in America, but people didn’t want their children to learn the enemy’s language. This attitude has had lasting effects on foreign language teaching as a whole.
In 2015, our current President Donald Trump said, “We are an English-speaking nation, and I think while we are in this nation, we should speak English. This quote illustrates the harmful beliefs that prevent Americans from learning and stigmatize those who speak other languages.
Today, the American attitude toward language education is driven not only by fear of foreigners but also by apathy. Many Americans aren’t interested in learning another language because they think English is becoming so prevalent that it’s useless. However, around 75% of people in the world do not speak it. While the language is spreading, it is not as global as many think. It is hypocritical for Americans to expect others to learn their language and not hold themselves to the same level.
These attitudes lead to a very late start in language education, which is another reason why American students are so reluctant to learn languages. Language programs should start earlier, as is often the case in Europe. Most European students start 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 learn new language skills than for adults. American students struggle with languages because they are introduced at exactly the wrong time when the brain has completed its initial rapid spurt of language acquisition and has largely forgotten the necessary skills.
Another factor that complicates the learning of foreign languages by American students is the way in which these courses are delivered. Most high school graduates will take four years of one language and then be unable to communicate in that language. These courses often teach students how to memorize vocabulary lists, not how to actually converse in a language. The most effective method of language learning, called immersion, relies on constant use. This strategy is rarely used in American language courses.
Students may also lack interest in learning a new language due to their very limited options. They do not realize the wealth of possible languages to learn. Language is not unique and schools should have more options for students who are curious about other possibilities.
Our current methods of teaching languages are not working, that does not mean that they should be abandoned, but that the system must be improved. If language requirements were removed from high schools and colleges, the United States would only fall further behind other countries, which would only make the problem worse.
American students must acquire language skills to compete in the global economy. These skills are essential for communicating and doing business. “To prosper economically and improve relations with other countries,” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2010, “Americans must read, speak, and understand other languages.” By speaking only English, Americans severely limit their opportunities.
Jessica Primavera is a college collaborator and can be contacted at [email protected]