Learning a new language? Not in America!

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Many Americans would benefit from learning a second language, a skill which theoretically should be learned in public schools.  Photo by    Element5 Digital    on    Unsplash

Many Americans would benefit from learning a second language, a skill which theoretically should be learned in public schools. Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

If there is one educational aspect I could change about America, it would be how a foreign language is introduced to a student’s education. If a student is not already exposed to a second native language at home besides English, they are most probably exposed to it in late middle school or early high school. And if I had a penny for people who have told me that the only thing they learned in high school Spanish was ‘Hola,’ then I would be a millionaire. I might be slightly exaggerating, but the statistics prove my point: According to the U.S. Department of Education, “90% of Americans don’t speak a second language”. What exactly is America doing wrong with this concept of second language acquisition?  

The first mistake made is that not every student begins learning a second language in that “critical period” many scientists identify.  The exact age range is unknown, but the fact that learning a new language after puberty is much harder is generally agreed upon by psychologists, linguists, and other experts; essentially, the earlier you begin learning a language, the better it sticks.  

Another reason as to why we should introduce another language early is that it becomes normalized. At the present, and all throughout history, we see minority groups being treated as second class for speaking English with an accent. Why do you think so many first and second-generation immigrants lost the ability to speak their native languages in the past? It is because they were being judged and belittled by adults who think the true meaning of being American is to speak perfect English. If bilingual people cannot speak their languages without criticism, how can American high school students even begin to fathom regularly speaking a language other than English? Children are less likely to be judgmental about this sort of thing both mentally and socially speaking. America really needs to start teaching languages much, much sooner than it currently does.   

The second mistake that the school systems make when introducing a foreign language is in the ‘how’ of the implementation. Most high schoolers in America are required to graduate with at least two years of foreign language education, which should give students more than enough time to practice a language to fluency. However, in reality, only about 0.7% people speak a language taught in high school other than English well enough for conversation.  

So what are high schools doing wrong? Polyglot Frank Taylor describes exactly what happens in high school foreign language classes. When we learn English, we start by learning how to read the letters, then by learning grammar and by comprehending complicated works of literature. However, high school Spanish is taught by teaching vocabulary, grammar and the alphabet all within the span of a year or two; and this only leads to frustration expressed as poor long-term retention (demonstrated by the aforementioned statistic). Second language in America is not taught in a way conducive to the natural language learning abilities everyone possesses, so it clearly follows that we are not going to see much bilingualism in American adults. 

I strongly believe that Americans should be fluent in another language for many reasons, if you could not already tell. Since that is a topic already extensively studied, I wanted to focus on why Americans are severely lacking, compared to other countries, and it turns out the answer is systemic. We really should start off the process of language learning early, but if we cannot do that, we should be teaching it in a way that mimics how we learned English. Suppose these things are implemented. Have we, as a society, progressed enough to include other languages in the definition of what it means to be American? I couldn’t answer that now, but surely you can see the irony of enforcing a secondary education and having very little to show for it.  


Lavanya Sambaraju is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lavanya.sambaraju@uconn.edu.

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