Editorial | American education critically undervalues language curriculum

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only an abysmal 20% of Americans testify that they can speak more than one language. Similar data from Europe places multilingual rates in Europe at 56%, which is much closer to the estimated rate among all human beings (50%). Clearly, the American population is disproportionately monolingual. 

On National Foreign Language Week, it’s worth calling attention to the issue: America’s educational institutions critically undervalue language curriculum.

It’s likely that foreign language education has been trivialized due to the international prevalence of the English language. English has been designated the “lingua franca,” meaning it is often the common language used between two non-native English speakers whose mother tongues differ.

English is, in fact, the most widely spoken language in the world. By a larger margin, it is the most common second language for non-native speakers. Perhaps this is the origin of America’s ambivalence toward foreign language curriculum. But by treating it like an elective rather than a crucial aspect of one’s adolescent education, Americans unwittingly forgo all the benefits that accompany learning a language.

First, there is a utility to other languages despite English’s global popularity. If one’s ambition lies in business, an increasingly international specialization, German or Chinese is incredibly practical. If one desires to enter the field of diplomacy, he or she should know that French is the unofficial language of diplomacy.

For those who never aspire to travel for work or leisure, try Spanish. The United States has no official language and bears more Spanish speakers every year. Domestically, Spanish is important to all Americans, regardless of if one’s career is in politics, manual labor, manufacturing or owning his or her own business.

And billions of humans speak non-European languages too. Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Arabic or Indonesian all rank among the most-spoken languages in the world. If an American was able to become proficient in just one of the aforementioned languages, it would open a lot of doors for him or her.

Proficiency or fluency in more than one language certainly gives an advantage to job applicants — not just for jobs requiring international travel. And it is important to note that less popular, more local languages can make a candidate stand out just as much as languages with broader appeal.

Language also enriches the travel experience. The ability to communicate in another language offers insights and new perspectives, informs on other cultures and opens one’s brain up to new ways of thinking. Linguistic experts are discovering more all the time about how different languages showcase the potential of the human brain.

Aside from the advantages of multilingualism to travel or employment, multilingualism improves cerebral development and cognitive function. Studies show multilingual speakers perform better on standardized tests and overall academic performance than those who are monolingual. Additionally, multilingual speakers demonstrate an expanded English vocabulary, suggesting that learning another language may help one better understand his or her own.

These benefits come from enhanced memory, creativity and problem-solving skills that the language curriculum cultivates.

It also is imperative to note that although language skills certainly become dulled when left unused, they are
never gone completely. Relearning a language is a much simpler process than learning a language from scratch and the cognitive benefits of learning a language stick much more than the individual vocabulary words themselves.

The American educational system fails to value language curriculum as it should. American schools begin language courses between ages 10-14, starkly in contrast to European schools, which often begin language courses between ages 6-8. Unfortunately, that difference is significant. The earlier a student is exposed to language, the more likely his or her brain is to absorb and adopt it.

Additionally, although the University of Illinois requires a certain threshold of foreign language proficiency, not all schools and colleges mandate a similar requirement.

The U.S. must overhaul its language curriculum to fit an increasingly diverse and globalized world. Americans cannot continually rely on the current ubiquity of English while the world population and diffusion of cultures change rapidly. U.S. schools must prioritize language curriculum in a similar manner to the rest of the world and must expose their students to the world of foreign language earlier in their education.

The fight for increased investment in foreign language education is a part of the fight to confront and diminish American ignorance and Americentrism. If the U.S. continues to underemphasize language skills, it will not only miss out on opportunities and intellectual growth, it will fall behind.