Only 20% of US kids study a language in school—compared to 92% in Europe

The downside of speaking a dominant language is not learning another tongue.
The downside of speaking a dominant language is not learning another tongue.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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Kids in the US take classes in English, which works out pretty well for them. The dominant global language right now happens to be their default. Perhaps that’s one reason why only 20% of US students in kindergarten through 12th grade learn a foreign language, according to new Pew Research Center data.

That’s strikingly low compared to Europe, where more than 90% of youth study at least one foreign language, and often more than one. For a young person in Romania, say, it makes sense to start learning other languages early, as their mother tongue isn’t spoken much beyond the country’s borders. That may explain why 100% of students there are studying foreign languages—as are youth in Austria, Cyprus, France, Norway, Malta, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein.

Another likely reason for the interest in foreign languages in Europe is the concentration of tongues within countries and throughout the union. In Switzerland, for example, there are four official national languages—French, German, Italian, and Romansh. In Belgium, there are three official tongues—French, German, and Dutch. Indeed, Belgium is so linguistically complex that English is the country’s best apolitical linguistic option, as Quartz’s Nikhil Sonnad recently noted. Europeans also share more borders with speakers of other languages than Americans, who have only English and French to the north in Canada and Spanish south of the border in Mexico.

Still, the language data points to an issue in American education, too. As Pew Research points out, European nations have national standards for language study, and students must pass exams in acquired tongues. By contrast, the 50 US states each have their own education standards. There’s no uniform language study requirement across the country.

A 2017 report from the nonprofit American Councils for International Education reveals that New Jersey has the most students studying a language at 51%, followed by the District of Columbia with 47%, and Wisconsin at 36%. But most states have less than 25% participation. In New Mexico, Arizona and Arkansas, only 9% study a foreign language. Among US students who do take up another tongue, Spanish is the most popular language.

Another factor at play, beyond geography and lack of national standards, may also be the extent to which learning another language is a practical necessity. English speakers don’t really need to bone up on their Dutch, for example. English is an official language in 59 countries, the first language of 400 million speakers worldwide, spoken by a billion more.

Some argue that English is so popular, in fact, that it’s downright oppressive. Writing for The Guardian in July, Jacob Mikanowski accused the English language of “taking over the planet.”  “It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology,” he argues. “And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed.” Likewise, on August 3, Brian Gallagher of Nautilus noted that English is “taking over the world and aligning human thought with Anglo-American interests.”

So it’s no wonder kids in the US don’t feel much linguistic pressure. Still, learning a foreign language is important for reasons that go beyond our practical obligations to communicate with people in another tongue. It’s a window on to a new worldview, a way to understand how our fellow humans think—multilingualism even shifts perceptions of time. American kids who don’t pick up another language may still easily find work in a globalized economy dominated by English. But they will be missing out on developing critical cultural intelligence—like learning how to relate to and communicate with strangers.