As someone who travels to India often, there have been many instances when I’ve heard the following comment:
“You know, in India, we all learn at least three languages, if not four, by the time we start school.”
…or something along those lines.
And India isn’t alone. A majority of countries encourage, if not require, their citizens to learn at least two languages, and they’re taught both simultaneously for almost their entire lives. After all, knowing both increases one’s marketability and job opportunities around the world, boosts one’s socioeconomic mobility, and gives one more means to communicate to more people (which is always helpful).
And all those reasons aside, studies have shown that bilingual children tend to be more academically successful and have more advanced cognitive skills than those who aren’t. They’re also better at learning more languages faster and easier later on in life.
The United States, recognizing the benefits of bilingualism, does have requirements that students take a second language starting in high school if not middle school, but let’s be honest, how much did that help? I took French for seven years and that all went down the drain in the time span of a year and a half.
Meanwhile, many nations in the world promote bilingualism from an early age, and citizens end up knowing multiple languages with native/near native proficiency.
So- why is the U.S. so averse to bilingualism, and what’s so wrong about how we’re teaching it now?
To answer the first question, the primary reason why most Americans aren’t so eager to start promoting bilingualism is because they simply don’t believe it’s an issue here. Critics will constantly mention how places like Europe and India have millions of people who speak distinctly different languages, all living right next to one another, and therefore, they are compelled to learn multiple languages in order to communicate with one another. However, apparently in the U.S., that’s not a problem. The vast majority of the nation speaks English, and therefore, there’s no reason as to learn any other language. We’ll simply never use it. However, day by day, the reality is deviating farther and farther from this claim.
The United States has always been a nation made up of immigrants, and today, those immigrants are mainly coming from Central and Latin America, and Asia- many of them not knowing English. Currently, there are over 40 million (12.4% of the population) Spanish speakers in the United States, making that more Spanish speakers than in Spain. Not to mention, 4% also speak a variety of Indo-European languages and 3% speak Asian-Pacific languages. And especially in urban centers, these immigrant populations are particularly prevalent- so therefore, shouldn’t we, as a nation that has such a large minority population, be trying to interact with them? And besides, while countries like France and Germany may be really close to other nations that speak different languages- 1) so are we, and 2) their population, unlike ours, is largely the same ethnicity who all speak the same language. Yet, more than half of them are bilingual. Therefore, instead of forcing all of our immigrants to adopt the “American” ways and learn English in order to get anywhere in this country, maybe we could embrace multiculturalism a bit more by promoting bilingualism in the United States even more than we are.
As for the second question, there is plenty that is wrong with our way of teaching second languages to children here in the U.S. First is the age at which we start. Most people are fluent at multiple languages because they have been completely immersed in both from a very early age. At an early age, children have immense grasping power and the ability to catch on the multiple languages, and they aren’t afraid to make mistakes. To be honest, a major reason as to why many of us don’t learn anything during middle school, high school and college foreign language classes is because we’re too afraid to look stupid. Also, aside from our teacher talking for 40 minutes a day, what other exposure do we have to that language?! Secondly, learning a second language in the United States isn’t seen as an asset or an opportunity to communicate with more people, but instead is seen as a burden- something we have to fulfill in order to graduate from school. This outlook towards learning a different language can also be changed by introducing foreign language to children from an early age and integrating it into American education more. Also, promoting the fact that learning a second language will also help students at their native language (English) more, is another factor that could potentially get more people to see the importance behind it.
Ultimately, learning a second language is becoming increasingly important, whether Americans want to admit it or not. In a world that is becoming increasingly global and in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse, bilingualism will allow Americans to not only be more competitive, but to be able to connect and interact with so many more people than they do now. If only we stopped viewing learning a second language as a burden and more of as an opportunity, then maybe bilingualism can become ubiquitous here too.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Posted by Jrohel , URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers.png