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Get with the program, America

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A string of international flags hang in front of a blue sky. American students need to learn foreign languages immediately. // Courtesy of Nareeta Martin

By Natalie Vinh

America is notorious for breeding monolingual citizens. 

Hop overseas to Europe, and you’ll see that over half of Europeans can speak at least two languages, including English. As of 2015, studying a second language was mandatory for most European students, beginning as early as age 6.

The U.S. pales in comparison. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, only 20% of American students were studying a foreign language as of 2017, compared to 100% in France and Romania, and a still whopping 70% in the Netherlands.

It begs the question: Should American students be required to study a foreign language like their European counterparts?

To put it plainly: Yes, they should.

There are countless benefits to learning a second language. Cognitively, studying a new language can improve analytical skills, memory function and problem solving. Studies have also shown learning a language can increase test scores in other areas.

Aside from improving brain function, learning a second language can be the deciding factor in business opportunities. Anyone interested in working abroad, specifically in Europe, should ensure a second language is down on their resume before even bothering to apply.

It all comes down to statistics. In 2016, 75% of working-age adults in the EU reported knowing at least one foreign language.

According to a study published by New American Economy, the demand for multilingual employees is rising. When competing against candidates who have the language experience necessary, the chances of getting hired aren’t high.

Why aren’t Americans learning foreign languages if it’s so important in today’s workforce?

Another study by the Pew Research Center noted only 36% of Americans considered knowing a second language to be important for workforce success. 

There are many reasons behind America’s lag in foreign language learning, but the attitude of our citizens is certainly one of them. 

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages’ Executive Director Marty Abbott addresses this, explaining that Americans often believe they can’t possibly learn another language, or they’re too old to do so.

If learning a foreign language is so important today, what can be done to ensure America’s students are receiving the proper instruction?

The first step is requiring several years of foreign language instruction before high school graduation. According to a report published by American Councils, only 11 states currently have foreign language requirements in order to graduate. 

This is simply unacceptable.

There are more reasons for the madness, one being the lack of qualified foreign language teachers. To teach a language, instructors must have some level of proficiency, however, the average language proficiency for foreign language teachers is significantly less than that of the U.S. military. This means there’s a better chance the Navy sailors can speak a foreign language more fluently than your Spanish teacher.

There’s also the matter of budget. It’s no secret that American public schools are grossly underfunded, and foreign language just isn’t considered to be high-priority, regardless of how valuable those skills can be.

It is imperative that American schools do better. By requiring foreign language, investing time and money into programs and heavily vetting possible instructors, American students can begin to catch up with their global counterparts.

Otherwise, America will continue to fall behind.

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