by Megan Waardenburg
We all know a little Spanish. Maybe a you know how to say hello in a few languages. Why is it that throughout the United States, very few people actually become fluent in Spanish, much less any language? The language education system that is currently in place is adequate, but so few students take advantage of it and strive for fluency. Most of the time, students will fulfill their language requirements for their high school or college, which is often about two years, and opt for classes they believe will be more beneficial to their education. As a result of this, the US Census reports only about 1% of adults in the United States are bilingual. This rate is dramatically different than our European and Australian counterparts. The demand for multilingual workers in the international economy is increasing, and American students are at a disadvantage without comparable linguistic knowledge. In order to bring about the necessary change, we need to know why languages are imperative to the global community and instill a desire in students for communicating with people worldwide.
Our language education system provides a quality path to fluency, but the issue lies in a lack of drive to attain language skills, as well as a bias in languages that are taught. What languages have you taken classes for in school? Which languages do you want to learn? Chances are, the answer is a European language. Most schools offer three main languages: Spanish, French, and German. Across the country, 95% of language students are learning a European based language, according to The Atlantic. Of course, there is no issue with learning a European language, in fact it is encouraged. However, many African and Asian languages are being neglected despite their growing presence, and the huge numbers of people that speak them globally. There are more Hindi speakers in the world than French speakers, and more Arabic than German.
A major catalyst to the mindset of focusing on these languages is applicability in daily life and difficulty due to divergence from the latin alphabet. Most students are encouraged to take Spanish due to our proximity to Spanish speaking countries. The reality is that the global economy and rising need for diplomats require more diversity in language speakers. Alongside this, European languages are easier for English speakers to learn. Languages such as German and Dutch are the easiest, as they are from the same language branch. While Spanish, French, and Italian are a little harder, they all come from the common Latin roots. While learning different languages is difficult, the need for them is higher than ever.
Achieving language proficiency rates as high as Europe is, of course, a great idea in theory, but not everyone is able to see the results of focused language study as easily as Europeans. It’s easy to dismiss language skills as being inapplicable to a number of professions, since most of North America speaks English. Language education benefits students seeking a job in highly diverse fields, as well as students who pursue jobs requiring skills correlating with language teaching. Students pursuing any job centered around government, business, education, and entertainment are likely to use their language skills in work, and they can mean the difference between struggling for a job or having a thriving career. For other professions, language learning can improve knowledge of a native language, as well as mathematics. The linear script of languages such as Chinese and Turkish make it easier for students to count and understand arithmetic concepts. Language classes often consist of geography and history lessons concerning areas where each language is spoken, giving students an advantage when learning these concepts in other courses. Multilinguals benefit from their abilities in more ways than educational credentials. Speaking a new language provides travel opportunities, and allows people to experience other cultures first hands in more in depth ways than those who can’t communicate.
In order to stay on top of language education, the easiest way is to enroll in your school’s language program. Speaking a language with others and receiving feedback is a huge advantage, and classes make this a necessity. Online programs such as Duolingo or Babble allow users to learn grammatical concepts and vocabulary, which is a great place to start. Ultimately, the best way to test your skills is to talk to a native speaker. They can teach you colloquial phrases, pronunciations, and point out your mistakes. While it takes effort to learn new languages, it is not by any means impossible.
In Europe, schools require students to take multiple years of multiple languages, and have a thriving language education field. Students are mostly offered courses in the languages of their bordering countries. Language teachers are in high demand, allowing more teachers to teach more languages. Students begin courses at ages as early as 6, while in the U.S. begin at about 12. The European language education system is enviable, but it exists out of dire need. Most European countries are about the size of individual states, meaning in order to communicate across borders, it is necessary to learn new languages. Our system was created out of minor need, making it less rigorous.
Non-English speaking countries seem so far away from where we are, but the globalizing cultures and workplaces are showing us the dire need for multilingualism. Linguistic skills benefit our own brains and our own opportunities, but the effects of what we can do with them allows us to connect with others worldwide.
Image by Morgan Hanna