OPINION: Americans need to stop brushing off foreign languages

Some Americans today look to European-style government as the solution to our domestic challenges. But adopting aspects of their education system, specifically their focus on teaching foreign languages, ought to be far less controversial.

While standards vary from country to country, the average European student begins to study their first foreign language between the ages of six and nine, according to Pew Research Center. Furthermore, 20 European countries mandate that students study a second foreign language before they graduate from secondary school.

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

As evident from the pushback against the Common Core Initiative, nationwide attempts to standardize education requirements can be difficult to implement.

Nevertheless, foreign language instruction ought to be considered a key aspect of any proper education and treated as such.

Few subjects offer students more of an economic boost than foreign languages classes. On average, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that proficiency in one offers American workers a two percent boost in annual income. This bonus increases for languages with fewer speakers.

Relatively few Americans can take advantage of this bonus, though, because our current education system fails at foreign language instruction. Most often, the few states with language requirements only mandate two years of instruction.

Because these classes often start as late as high school, it simply ends up being too little, too late. Researchers at MIT have found that those who start learning a language after the age of 10 do not achieve the proficiency of native speakers.

Only 0.7 percent of Americans who can speak another language “very well” indicate that they learned it in school. While some may argue that these results suggest we should divert resources away from foreign languages, that would be unwise.

Those either raised bilingual or taught a foreign language also have better memory, visual-spatial skills and even creativity. These benefits extend well into adulthood, and foreign language abilities have even been seen as a factor in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

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

Historically, Americans have often dismissed these statistics with claims that Europeans are advantaged by growing up in much closer proximity to other foreign language speakers. Yet the number of Spanish speakers living in America grows rapidly each year. Since European schools most often teach English as their foreign language, many Americans live just as close to Canada or Mexico as these Europeans do to the United Kingdom or Ireland.

In areas of the U.S. that may lack any 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 hold a more positive opinion of the speakers of that language.

Language skeptics may be quick to claim that these skills will do little for those who don’t plan to travel internationally in life. Twenty years ago, one could viably make that argument, but it falls flat now.

In today’s world, we are seconds away from engaging with media, literature, communication and entertainment from all around the world. Equally important, language skills give job applicants an additional asset as globalization continues to change the world economy.

Pomona College, Scripps College and Claremont McKenna College require their students to demonstrate competency in a foreign language before graduation, but Pitzer College and Harvey Mudd College do not have any such requirement.

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For those of us who will take a language class during our time here, we must focus on gaining proficiency in that language and then continuing to use it after we graduate. We have a duty to ensure the next generation of America grows up with an appreciation for foreign languages and culture.

Current trends suggest this will require much effort. In response to the Great Recession, foreign language classes often became the first casualty of budget cuts. Ironically, these cuts only further hurt students’ chances of attaining 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 & Sciences.

Additionally, students who study a foreign language regularly score higher on standardized testing, perform better in science classes and succeed more in college classes, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

The U.S. needs to dramatically overhaul its foreign language instruction so its students can become more competitive in an increasingly global economy, perform better in school and become more culturally aware.

 

Christopher Murdy PO ’22 is an intended International Relations major from Lido Beach, New York. This weather is really starting to remind him of home.

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