I’m standing at a restaurant in southern France, near Montpellier. Aided only by my scarce French 103 knowledge, I’m staying silent and attempting to understand what two native French speakers are saying. One of these native speakers is my host for a month, and she explains to the other that I am American. He gives me a knowing look and says, “Ahhh,” as if my silence now makes sense to him. Within my first week here, this association between being American and not speaking the language has become a trend. While I am sure some native speakers make assumptions that visitors from other countries do not know their language, there is a pointed sense of certainty about my language skills — or lack thereof — that arises when I say, “I am from America.” Considering the emphasis that many other countries put on learning languages from a young age, I doubt this certainty would be the same if I was not from America.
When looking at the way foreign languages are taught, or more precisely not taught, in the American school system, these assumptions have some merit. American students fall behind in language learning from a young age. As there is no national mandate for foreign language classes, decisions regarding these classes are left up to the states or even to individual school districts. The numbers would suggest that most states and school districts do not deem a foreign language requirement to be of much importance, with only 20% of K-12 students learning a foreign language. To put this figure into perspective, the median portion of primary and secondary school students learning a language across European countries is 92%. And if American students decide to continue their education after high school, the chances of them taking a foreign language are even lower. Since 2009, foreign language enrollments among college students have continued to decrease; in 2016, there were only 7.5 enrollments in foreign language courses per 100 students enrolled at American colleges.
Despite this decline in foreign language class enrollment, the demand for bilingual people in the U.S. job market is rising. Job postings from U.S. employers looking for bilingual employees more than doubled between 2010 and 2015. This increase in demand is understandable considering the fact that American companies lose over $2 billion annually on cultural or language misunderstandings. Knowing another language expands one’s potential network, and thus, many American companies compensate employees with an additional $67,000 to $128,000 over their lifetime for their language skills.
Beyond the financial advantages, there are prominent mental and cultural benefits to knowing another language. Cognitively, language skills increase the likelihood of taking favorable risks and help with memory and the aging brain which reduces the chance for Alzheimer’s and dementia. Culturally, knowing a language can be a necessity for communication; it acts as a door to the customs, habits and identity of a culture. In each of the world’s approximately 6,500 languages, there are words that describe emotions that cannot be translated without losing some of their original meaning. When we attempt to learn different languages, we are also attempting to learn the different emotions and experiences of the people who speak those languages. That attempt to understand and learn about other people is what is not only helpful but also beautiful about learning a language that is not your own.
However, current language learning in the U.S. does not reflect an appreciation for these assets of knowing another language. In 2008, only 25% of elementary schools in the U.S. offered foreign language classes. While the question of the best age to learn another language has been disputed, there are situational benefits to learning another language as a child. As children are more likely to receive structured support and academic encouragement than adults are, there is more reinforcement available for children during the difficult and extensive process of learning a new language. Children are also not usually bound to the same time constraints of working full-time or adulthood, which allows for fewer distractions.
Given these circumstances, learning foreign languages at a young age should be normalized in the U.S. — as it already is in many other countries. As a public school student in America, my first opportunity to learn another language was not until eighth grade Spanish. Once I got to high school, I had the options of Spanish, German, sign language or online Mandarin Chinese. As college was my first chance to learn French, my French is elementary at best. My inexposure starkly contrasts with many of the people I have met at the University of Michigan who are around the same age as me, as many of them have taken upwards of a decade of a foreign language. However, the disparity between students in America and students in other countries knowing another language is one of exposure, not necessarily disinterest or inability. If students in America were given the opportunity to explore different languages at a younger age, there would not be such a contrast between them and students in other parts of the world. And on a personal level, I would be saying, “Je ne comprends pas,” a whole lot less right now.
Olivia Mouradian is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.