By Talia Soglin
Americans are famously monolingual. In our increasingly globalized world, we cling stubbornly to English, refusing to properly educate our children in foreign languages.
Multiple factors converge to create this phenomenon — the United States is massive, meaning that while many Europeans are only a few hours away from neighboring countries, Americans are stuck 3,000 miles deep in our own.
The U.S. is a world power, and the dollar carries a lot of weight. English is used as a lingua franca in politics, diplomacy, and business. To many, learning a second or third language simply seems unnecessary.
Then there is the archetype of the ugly American. Based upon a deeply ingrained belief in American cultural and linguistic superiority, many Americans believe English is an inherently better language than others and that there is no point in even bothering to learn a phrase or two when visiting a different country, let alone spending years to become conversational or fluent.
These factors together help explain our refusal to learn language. But they will not always hold, especially in the near future. Languages like Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic are fast-growing and on track to amass more influence in the global workplace.
Furthermore, the United States itself is becoming less and less homogenous and the world is becoming more and more connected. A 2014 study by the Center for Immigration Studies found that 45% of school children in California speak a language other than English at home.
A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report warned that “A pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages in this country threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.”
Americans are bad at language because we don’t value it, and more specifically, because we start teaching it far too late with far too little intensity.
When Americans travel abroad, we are often awed by the ease and fluency with which people speak English, and we are amazed by how common it is in some countries for people to speak three or four languages relatively fluently. It’s not because Dutch or Mandarin or French speakers are just better at language learning. It’s because in other countries, foreign language education starts when kids are still very young and have a natural ability to pick up language rapidly.
Young children still have flexible ear and speech muscles, which allow them to hear and reproduce the sounds, structure, and intonation of a foreign language fairly naturally, just like they did with their mother tongue. By the time kids are between the ages of 8-12 (far before most American children begin learning a second language), they lose this ability, and learning a language becomes much more difficult. Rather than learning a language intuitively, it becomes more of an exercise in conjugation charts and memorization. Furthermore, the later you begin learning a language, the harder it is to get rid of an accent.
Beyond the advantage it gives students in learning the foreign language itself, studying a language in elementary school has other wide-ranging benefits for kids, specifically that language studies can help other areas of education. A recent study in Harwich, Massachusetts found that elementary school students who studied a foreign language outperformed their non-language learning in peers in Massachusetts state testing. This is because learning a foreign language is a cognitive activity, and the skills children learn from learning a language are easily transferrable to other areas of academics, especially math.
Language is a tool, and a bridge to communication with sometimes millions of people. To deny our children that privilege is to deny them the opportunity to connect with our world.
Language learning should not be a purely practical endeavor. It is an exercise in cultural understanding, in erasing borders and enlarging worlds.