If you went through the American education system, you might think the language classes available in your high school were among those ten most common ones. However, it’s unlikely you took Hindi, the fourth-most-spoken language, or Bengali, the seventh-most. In fact, only Spanish, Chinese and Japanese make both lists of the world’s most commonly spoken languages and the most-taught languages taught in American high schools.
The U.S. also lags behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to language study. In Europe, over 90 percent of students begin learning English in elementary school, and the education systems in several European countries require learning two languages. In the U.S., though, only 15 percent of elementary schools have foreign language classes.
Why Language Education Is Failing
A lack of funding is one reason American language education is falling behind. People don’t see language education as crucial, so when budgets need cut, language classes are some of the first to go.
In Europe, a lot of people live close to the border of another country where another language is spoken. Most Americans, though, are surrounded by other Americans or our neighbors to the north in Canada, the majority of whom speak English. The proximity of Mexico explains why Spanish is the most-taught language in the U.S.
Because of this relative isolation, people don’t view language as important. It may also be harder to find educators to teach foreign languages, because they would have had to either learn the language in the U.S., where instruction isn’t readily available, or emigrate from another country.
The U.S. also tends to start teaching certain languages because of specific events. When the Cold War began, the government pushed learning Slavic languages. Since 9/11 and the “war on terror,” courses in Middle Eastern languages have become more common. Learning a language takes time, though. By the time the students have mastered one of these languages, the need may have switched to something else.
How to Improve Language Education in the U.S.
Dedicating more funding to education is one obvious way to improve language learning in the U.S. In order for it to get more dollars, however, it needs to be seen as a key area of study as opposed to something extra. This necessitates a shift in the way we think about languages.
Another solution that has also been proposed that doesn’t involve too much increased funding is dual-language instruction. This means teaching a variety of subjects in multiple languages from a young age, reducing the need to hire dedicated language teachers and buy additional language textbooks.
Because younger children pick up language easier than older kids, starting from a younger age would also likely improve American language education.
The Importance of Learning New Languages
Catalyzing a shift in the way we think about foreign language education requires convincing people of its importance, and there are certainly plenty of reasons to believe that.
Knowing more than one language is a practical skill. The world is becoming more globalized. It’s much easier to travel and much more likely you’ll run into someone whose first language isn’t the same as yours. It makes good businesses sense, too. One in five jobs is related to international trade.
Learning a foreign language can also improve general communication skills, increase understanding of other cultures and allow you to be a more effective global citizen. Although U.S. foreign language education is a bit lacking, especially compared to other parts of the world, implementing some key changes to the way we think about the topic may improve it to the benefit of American students.
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