When I entered seventh grade, there was one thing that I was looking forward to. After years of watching “Dora the Explorer” when I was little and wishing I knew Spanish, I was finally able to take a Spanish class. I hoped one day I could speak Spanish as well as Dora herself.
This, however, is not how the human brain works. When we take a foreign language class at the age of 12 or 13, we are not able to learn the language as fluently as we would have if we had started learning at a much younger age, such as when we were 5- or 6-years-old in kindergarten. This is due to the fact that children have a “critical period” of development. During this period, if children do not learn how to do certain things, they likely will not be able to do it later in life, or at least they will not be able to do it as well.
With learning a language, it is possible for children to learn it after the critical period. However, children who learn a language after the critical period are not as fluent and often speak with a heavy accent that makes it difficult for native speakers to even understand them. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), children can learn a second language and may be able to speak it without an accent and with fluent grammar only up until they are about 7- or 8-years-old.
Despite all of these studies, nothing about our educational systems has changed. Most students in the United States, if they even have the opportunity to learn a second language, only end up beginning these classes in middle school or high school.
With all these studies that prove the effectiveness of learning languages at a young age, it is time for the American educational system to change.
In contrast, many students in Europe begin learning a foreign language between the ages of 6 and 9. According to the Pew Research Center, a median of 92% of primary and secondary students in Europe are learning a foreign language, according to our paltry 20%. With the population of the U.S. being as diverse as it is, students here should be learning another language at a young age.
Learning another language can be extremely helpful in the working world as well. For example, in a job that has businesses around the world, someone who knows more than just one language may be favored over someone who only knows one. Even in the healthcare field, there are times where patients are only able to communicate in one language. If the healthcare provider does not know that language, it can lead to a problem.
If foreign languages are required in schools, especially from a young age, it could decrease many of these language barriers and even open up more job opportunities. Learning another language can be very beneficial.
Especially in the United States, many people do not know a second language. As of 2018, 231 million people in the U.S. only speak English at home and do not know another language well enough to be able to communicate in it.
More schools across the U.S. should make learning a second language mandatory, especially from a young age. Even just familiarizing children with the language while they are in kindergarten and first grade can help them immensely in the future.
If the U.S. education system continues the way that it does, it willingly continues to fail us. We should not be so far behind other students across the world with regards to learning another language.
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Anika Veeraraghav is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.