Americans suffer from inadequate foreign language education

Lauren Franklin

The United States is largely monolingual. In fact, only about 15-20 percent of Americans consider themselves bilingual, compared to 56 percent of Europeans surveyed in 2006 by the European Commission. This difference is problematic for a number of reasons, especially on the 40 Acres, where we like to think that “what starts here, changes the world.” 

Arabic professor Mahmoud Al-Batal says that the inability to speak a foreign language makes it difficult for Americans to compete globally on a linguistic and cultural level. Some critics of the United States’ monolingual nature have focused on problems in university-level language courses that result in students failing to reach higher levels of proficiency in a foreign language. 

Many of us have heard of the infamous quote, “English was good enough for Jesus Christ, and it’s good enough for the children of Texas.” We have also laughed at or lamented the ignorance that often colors debates of programs and legislation for foreign language education, in which the mandate to learn a second language is often portrayed as a threat that needs to be quelled. 

It wasn’t always like this, however. The United States used to take a much friendlier view toward bilingualism. In the 19th century, immigrant communities maintained — and even published in — their native languages, and educational policies were generally tolerant of this linguistic diversity. However, ideologies began to change in the 1880s, with a huge influx of non-English-speaking immigrants and developing reactionary nationalist movements. Eventually, this change in ideology led to a movement of “Americanization,” which adopted a push for English as a linguistic identifier of the “American.” As World War I raged, English monolingualism became synonymous with support for the U.S. Eventually, legislation removed foreign language instruction from most elementary schools.

This lack of foreign language education for children persists to this day, despite much research suggesting that bilingualism has a significant positive effect on children’s linguistic, cognitive and educational development. The benefits of bilingualism are not just cognitive: Hebrew professor Adi Raz said that knowledge of a foreign language provides huge cultural benefits.

“We don’t just teach language but also culture. By doing so we emphasize the importance of understanding the ‘other,’” Raz said.

Knowledge of a foreign language also helps with employment. “A person who speaks another language is perceived as more intelligent, smarter and a better student,” Al-Batal said. 

Nevertheless, as English has become the global language for commerce and science, many Americans feel that learning a second language is not necessary. We see this here on the 40 Acres: Students complain that foreign language classes are too hard and too time-consuming. This view, coupled with a wholly monolingual environment, pervades not only adults’ outlook on foreign language learning, but also that of children. Even children that are exposed to foreign languages in school are less likely to be motivated to learn them.  

In the last decade, there has been a growth in the number of dual language programs in the United States. These programs, in general, are instructed in two languages with a goal of bilingualism and biliteracy. These programs are highly successful for young children because they involve immersion in a second language environment on a daily basis. However, these programs tend to be expensive and exclusive, meaning that not all parents will have access to them.

 Although there may be no quick fix for the poor motivation and lack of interest in foreign language courses on campus, we are the future leaders, legislators and teachers who can make a difference in the way language is taught in the United States.  

“We are blessed with such diverse communities here in the United States, and English is common among all of us, but we need to create other [linguistic] links, not just to American citizens, but also to other citizens of the global village,” Al-Batal said. 

Policies and programs for foreign language education need to change, as do social expectations for what we get out of our educations. If what starts here really does change the world, our students should care about whether they can speak up and be understood beyond English-speaking countries. 

Franklin is a Plan II, linguistics and Middle Eastern languages and cultures senior from Sugar Land.