Though the United States doesn’t have a national requirement for learning a foreign language in schools, most high schools either have the option or require kids to take at least one year.
Most high schools only do this because of the foreign language requirement to get into a lot of colleges. Colleges can also require a semester or two of a foreign language as a general education requirement, but rarely is it necessary to be fluent. In fact, some colleges don’t even require a language at all. Currently, just 7 percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.
Only one-quarter of Americans report they can speak another language other than English, and 43 percent of that quarter claim to speak their other language very well. Out of that 43 percent, however, only 7 percent say school was where they primarily learned that language, compared to 89 percent learning it from their childhood home.
Should we be concerned about the number of students that aren’t studying foreign languages to college level? Yes. Here’s why.
The Global Market
The world is more connected than ever before. When you apply for a job, you could be up against candidates from a slew of other countries. You might have the same skillset and be able to do comparable work, but they could have the advantage of being able to speak their native language and English fluently. Employers are willing to pay more for someone that speaks multiple languages.
While a lot of international business is conducted in English, employers want someone who speaks the language of the country they’re dealing with just in case. Speaking in their natural language can help the other party feel more at ease with business dealings. It’s also possible that a company could want to broker a deal with people who don’t speak English at all.
It could be even harsher on monolingual applicants when you take into consideration that many European countries encourage or require their citizens to learn more than one foreign language. One of my European friends can speak decently well in seven different languages. So not only could we be applying against bilingual candidates, but multilingual ones as well.
Bilingualism Has Cognitive Benefits
Recent studies have shown the bilingualism can come with a whole host of benefits. Bilinguals are distracted less easily and are better at multitasking. These things make sense when you think of what bilinguals are training their brains to do. They need to be able to quickly choose and switch fluidly between languages, making it natural that they’re able to multitask in other activities better.
Bilinguals also find creative solutions to problems, considering they aren’t restricted by one language or worldview. Their minds are more open, and they have increased memory capacity. The more you push yourself to know, the more your memory expands and is able to process even more information.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits as bilinguals get older is their resistance to diseases like Alzheimer’s. Knowing multiple languages keeps your brain active and shows it can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms by as much as five years.
It’s Easier to Travel and Connect With Other People
Traveling is one of the great joys on this Earth. Learning about other cultures and immersing yourself in beautiful places is a wonderful thing. Being bilingual allows you to connect with the culture even more. If you can speak the language, it’s easier to make friends and talk with the people you meet.
The best way to explore a place isn’t by going to the places in the guidebook – it’s by going to the little-known places that locals show you. Being able to strike up a conversation with the people beside you can take you to places you never knew existed in the country. Plus, it’s easier to get help should you have any issues on your trip.
Bilinguals are also literally better listeners than those who are monolingual. They can more easily pick up on subtleties in the speech of others, making them better communicators no matter what the language.
The benefits of being bilingual are apparent and they’re something students are missing when they’re declining to learn foreign languages. Considering the way being bilingual helps the brain in all aspects, they’re potentially missing out on learning better in other subjects as well.
With how adamant everyone is about the necessity of a good GPA, students may be declining to take a foreign language because they fear it could bring their GPA down. An educational environment should encourage students to learn new things like other languages – not scare people away from them.
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