How many of you out there speak another language that you learned in school?
Nope, there aren’t too many of us. It’s truly shameful. A Gallup poll (http://www.gallup.com/poll/1825/about-one-four-americans-can-hold-conversation-second-language.aspx) actually surprised me; apparently, about a quarter of Americans can carry out a conversation in a second language – more than I thought. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how many of those surveyed can do that because they grew up speaking the second language rather than because they learned it in school. For a country as globally important as the United States, it’s amazing how little emphasis we place on learning other languages.
Those of you who have traveled abroad – pretty much anywhere – were no doubt impressed by the number of people you met who could speak some amount of English, if not another foreign language as well. I’ve been to 10 non-English speaking countries, and regardless of how economically developed, each country contained an impressive number of English speakers. Consider Croatia, a country torn by war for most of the 90’s. The vast majority of the people I met could speak conversational, if not fluent, English, German, and Italian. How embarrassing, then, that a cab driver in Zagreb commented that I was the first American he’d ever met who could speak anything other than English; he couldn’t believe it when I said that I had studied Spanish, French, and Italian.
It’s true that because of our relative geographic isolation (compared to European countries) it’s not as necessary on a daily basis for Americans to speak another language; we don’t often encounter visitors from other countries or travel to those countries ourselves. However, we can all attest to the growing population of Spanish speakers in all parts of the United States, and then of course there are plenty of immigrants coming in from Africa and Asia. (I think the ESL program at the school where I taught had kids who spoke at least 10 different languages.) Even if you’re opposed to immigration and wish that all those people would learn English, you have to admit that realistically it would be a good idea for more of us to speak Spanish if not other languages as well.
I had the good fortune to attend a magnet high school for international studies that requires students to study at least two of the 11 languages offered there, but that’s definitely the exception to the rule. Colleges like to see that applicants took four years of one language, but it’s not a requirement for admission. Some school districts have no foreign language requirement at all; Prince George’s County in Maryland requires its high school students to take either two years of a language or two years of a technical skill… not exactly a high bar.
And foreign language requirements (or lack thereof) are not the only problem. Schools often lack the resources (personnel or otherwise) to maintain a foreign language program, and in today’s test-driven culture, struggling schools are most likely to cut “electives” like foreign languages in order to boost the time students spend trying to master the minimum skills needed to pass state exams.
Case in point: part of my job while working for D.C. Public Schools was to compile a list of all the foreign language teachers in the District. I noticed something quite disturbing. At this time last year, none of the seven middle schools or education campuses in wards 7 and 8 (the poorest) had full-time foreign language teachers. In contrast, the flagship middle school in ward 3 (the richest) had no fewer than eight foreign language teachers (at ONE school). Similarly, the total number of foreign language teachers at the three high schools in wards 7 and 8 equaled the number of foreign language teachers at the one high school in ward 3.
I’m happy to say that I think this is changing; after sharing that information with the Chancellor, I learned that they are trying to make foreign language study mandatory at the middle school level, and I know of at least one middle school in ward 7 that now has a Spanish teacher. Change is slow, but it is coming.
Whether it’s to prepare for the continued influx of immigrants or to engage with people from other countries, Americans need to learn at least one other language to the point of proficiency. We are the birthplace of the technology that allows people all over the world to connect and communicate, but we have isolated ourselves by ignoring the importance of learning foreign languages. And it’s not just about learning words – languages introduce us to other cultures that can teach us so much. If more of us learned another language from an early age, we might just have a more tolerant, culturally inquisitive culture… and that’s never a bad thing.