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The American failure in foreign language education

The United States has grown too comfortable with its language education. It is a shame that a country founded by nationals from different regions — speaking languages from Dutch to English to Chinese — is not pushing its citizens to learn languages. But more than that, this is an issue for Americans who wish to make their way in the world. Business and political climates often expect that English will be the language of the deal, but what does that say about our willingness to understand others? Are we lazy? Overconfident? Either is unsatisfactory. The U.S. needs a language education overhaul to make Americans competitive, global citizens.

In 2012, Forbes quoted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan saying that 18 percent of Americans and 53 percent of Europeans report speaking a second language. The difference highlights two things: contrast between the contexts of Europe and America, and the regions’ different approaches to collaboration.

Europe has a cultural mandate for its citizens to learn foreign languages. If you go 500 miles in any direction you will find yourself in another culture, language and lifestyle. For most of history, this was Europe’s Achilles’ heel — the cultures warred over their insurmountable differences until 1945. At the end of WWII, the bullies overcame their differences and laid the foundation for a political and economic union that would keep the peace. The European Union has 24 official languages today.

Similarly, U.S. history explains why language is a peripheral focus for our country. Settlers first arriving to the New World were predominantly English. Our country’s history is the history of the English. We developed an identity based on entrepreneurship, individual success and the American dream. We had a businessman’s mentality: let other people speak your language, not the other way around. By relying on English, we could develop a domestic identity and also assert ourselves to the world.

The time for U.S. language isolation is over. Our reliance on English has grown stale in the age of globalization. English is the world’s lingua franca with more than 500 million speakers, but Mandarin and Spanish lead by native speakers at 1 billion and 400 million. Coupled with the increasing fashionability of cultural retention movements (in Scotland a 160,000-pound budget was just passed to increase childhood Gaelic education) it is no longer safe to rely solely on English. We need to diversify our abilities to stand out.

To cultivate a meaningful American relationship with foreign language, we need to teach it at the developmental stages. Right now language programs in elementary and middle schools are in their infancy, and in high school they stand behind STEM subjects, English and history. Language education does not take away precious class time from these subjects — it augments them. It adds context to history, deeper insight to the structure of English and more marketability to STEM students. Language should be as prioritized as any of these in a standard education. Knowledge is worthless without the ability to communicate it.

America, the time when we could get by without significant language ability is over. Let’s prepare the next generation for the 21st century and teach them how to communicate.

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