OPINION: Americans need to stop sweeping up foreign languages


Some Americans today see European-style government as the solution to our national challenges. But adopting aspects of their education system, especially the emphasis on foreign language teaching, should be far less controversial.

Although standards vary from country to country, the average European student is starting to study their first foreign language between six and nine years old, according to the Pew Research Center. In addition, 20 European countries require students to study a second foreign language before graduating from high school.

As a result, a median of 92% of European students across all age groups study at least one foreign language, according to Pew. By comparison, only 20% of all American students study a foreign language, and only 10 states and the District of Columbia require graduates to have studied a language.

As the backlash against the Common Core Initiative shows, national attempts to standardize education requirements can be difficult to implement.

Nevertheless, the teaching of a foreign language should be seen as an essential aspect of any proper education and treated as such.

Few subjects offer students a greater economic boost than foreign language courses. On average, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found this Master of One offers working Americans a 2% increase in their annual income. This bonus increases for languages ​​with fewer speakers.

However, relatively few Americans can take advantage of this bonus because our current education system fails in teaching foreign languages. Most often, the few states with language requirements mandate only two years of education.

Because these classes often start as late as high school, it just ends up being too little, too late. MIT researchers have found that those who start learning a language after the age of 10 do not reach the competence of native speakers.

Only 0.7% of Americans speak another language “very well” indicate that they learned it at school. While some might argue that these results suggest we should divert resources from foreign languages, that would be unwise.

Those who were raised bilingual or who learned a foreign language also better memory, visual-spatial skills and even creativity. These advantages extend into adulthood, and foreign language skills have even been considered a delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

European-style education clearly demonstrates how effective foreign language teaching could become in the United States. Of those able to speak another language, 68 percent credit their lessons to school.

Historically, Americans have often dismissed these statistics by claiming that Europeans benefit from growing up in close proximity to other foreign language speakers. Yet the number of Spanish speakers living in America is growing rapidly every year. Since European schools most often teach English as a foreign language, many Americans live just as close to Canada or Mexico as these Europeans live to the UK or Ireland.

In areas of the United States that may lack significant diversity, successful language instruction would introduce these young students to cultures different from their own. Studies have shown that students who study a foreign language have a more positive opinion of speakers of that language.

Language skeptics may be quick to argue that these skills won’t do much for those who don’t plan to travel abroad in life. Twenty years ago, one could reasonably make this argument, but it falls flat now.

In today’s world, we are seconds away from interacting with media, literature, communication and entertainment from around the world. Equally important, language skills give job seekers an extra edge as globalization continues to change the global economy.

Pomona College, Scripps College, and Claremont McKenna College require their students to demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language before graduation, but Pitzer College and Harvey Mudd College have no such requirement.

For those of us who will be taking a language course while here, we need to focus on becoming fluent in that language and then continuing to use it after we graduate. We have a duty to ensure that the next American generation grows up with an appreciation for foreign languages ​​and cultures.

Current trends suggest this will take a lot of effort. In response to the Great Recession, foreign language courses often becomes the first victim of budget cuts. Ironically, these cuts have only worsened students’ chances of getting jobs.

In Massachusetts, for example, the number of job postings requiring bilingualism almost tripled between 2010 and 2015, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Additionally, students studying a foreign language consistently achieve higher scores on standardized tests, perform better in science courses and do more in college courses, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

The United States needs to radically overhaul its foreign language education so that its students can become more competitive in an increasingly globalized economy, do better in school, and become more culturally aware.

Christopher Murdy PO ’22 is an international relations student from Lido Beach, New York. This weather is really starting to remind him of home.


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