One change in US education could dramatically improve America’s relationship with the world

Reaching the world through language.
Reaching the world through language.
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There are plenty of reasons why Americans should be learning a second language—and almost as many reasons why they’re not.

About 60 million Americans speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2015 U.S. census—almost the size of the UK’s entire population. But the same nation that once saw knowledge of foreign languages as essential for global power has failed to prioritize it in recent years, especially at the elementary-school level.

This not only has implications for Americans abroad, but also at home. Research has shown bilingualism can have far-reaching positive effects on people’s personal and professional lives.

Employers look to hire people with language skills “even if they think they don’t need them,” says Rebecca Callahan, author of The Bilingual Advantage and an associate professor of bilingual and bicultural education at the University of Texas at Austin. “At the same time, there’s been a devaluing of our educational system and the importance of foreign language.”

Lost in translation

First introduced on a large scale in elementary schools in the 1960s, language classes were long seen as a way make US residents globally competitive. In 1958, the US National Defense Education Act funded university foreign language programs to ensure that Americans would fare well against the Russians, who launched the Sputnik 1 satellite just a year before. The measure also funded summer institutes for teachers, who then brought their polished language skills and tech-focused teaching methods to US classrooms.

Nancy Rhodes, a senior world language consultant at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., remembers elementary school during the early 1960s, when students looked on starry-eyed as the teacher used a TV to teach lines of French and Spanish. “It was cutting-edge at the time,” she recalls.

Curriculum was reformed again in the 1980s, with the emphasis shifting to more conversational lessons and age-targeted textbooks. Widely successful dual-language immersion programs also started to emerge, and instructors began teaching subjects like math or social studies using the target language.

Over the past decade, these programs are thought to have quadrupled, says Bill Rivers, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Language and International Studies. However, they usually only serve a single classroom—few schools have managed to administer such programs to their entire student body. “The danger is saying that, ‘Hey, we put an immersion program in, so we can check off that language box,’” Rivers says.

Callahan says traditional foreign language classes started to drop off in American elementary and secondary schools around 2002, when No Child Left Behind came into effect. The act narrowed curriculums to focus on standardized test scores, ushering in an era when foreign languages became luxuries. Schools secured funding through high scores in math and english, so they made room for test prep by cutting “extras” like languages. A 2008 report by the Center for Applied Linguistics stated that language programs in one third of its surveyed elementary and secondary schools consequently suffered.

“If it’s not assessed, we don’t fund it,” Callahan said. “Foreign languages was one of those add-ons to begin with, and it’s one of those things that is easy to cut.”

Falling behind

As a result of all these changes, and the decreasing emphasis placed on its importance, US language education just doesn’t stack up against the rest of the world.

The average American high school graduate has taken two years of foreign language class, and college language course enrollment is down almost 14% from 1960. The number of students enrolled in a language course at American colleges and universities decreased by more than 100,000 between 2009 and 2013. Meanwhile, most European countries demand that students learn at least one foreign language, according to Pew Research. Many mandate two.

“The US is definitely behind [compared] to what other countries are doing,” Rhodes said. “In Europe, it’s not that there’s any pedagogical or methodological secret. It’s just that they make them take it.”

Having a biliterate population doesn’t just help with foreign diplomacy. It also has positive social and economic impacts.

College graduates who can speak and read in a second language earn an estimated 2 to 3% more money per year, on average—for someone making $50,000, that’s $1,000 extra. Between 2014 and 2015, interest in hiring foreign-language majors among job recruiters and HR managers increased by 11%, according to a Michigan State University survey.

Studies also suggest that bilingual people are more creative and have better visual-spatial skills, which are essential for reading, math, sports performance, and navigation. Speaking two languages may also make minds more resilient to dementia, a 2013 study showed.

“It really expands your cognitive skills,” says Rhodes. “But I would say the greatest benefit is being able to communicate with people you otherwise would never be able to talk to, and learning how they think.”

About a quarter of Europeans can have a conversation in two foreign languages, while 54% of Europeans can hold a conversation in at least one. Just 25% of Americans can do the same, according to a 2006 survey by University of California Berkeley.

One hurdle: It’s almost impossible for the US to enforce foreign-language education in kindergarten through 12th grade on a federal level, Rivers says. There are too many cooks in the kitchen.

Europe is able to standardize language learning “because they have centralized language bureaucracies,” Rivers explains. Meanwhile, America’s educational system is divided into 55 state and territorial education agencies, plus charter schools. The National Defense Education Act, for instance, was actually focused on higher education—its summer training institutes were a positive add-on for grades K through 12, not a federally mandated standard.

Even countries long regarded as “behind” in foreign-language education are rapidly changing their curriculum. Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and others Latin American nations have rolled out serious reforms to prioritize English in recent years, according to the 2015 English Proficiency Index.

“[It’s] recognizing the value of biliteracy and having a competitive advantage for the kids,” Rivers says. “It’s certainly something that marks a good school system.”

Although 600 million people are studying English around the world, few of them will actually reach professional-level proficiency, according to Rivers. Americans might want to check their privilege and open themselves to start seeing the value of non-English learning once again. To enforce foreign-language education in schools, Rivers says state politicians must either support the cause, or state colleges must add language classes to their application requirements.

“We’re engaged diplomatically and militarily all over the world,” Rivers says. “Whatever you might think of that, it’s a significant implication for our need to have a language capacity.”