This past week, a report released by the Pew Research Center confirmed what is already common knowledge in the linguistic community: in comparison with European nations, the U.S. education system places meager emphasis on the study of foreign languages.
Most European nations mandate classroom study of at least one foreign language beginning as early as preschool. In fact, over twenty European countries require the study of a second foreign language by the time a student reaches teenage years.
By contrast, the United States has no national requirement for foreign language study in schools at any level of instruction. It typically falls to individual school districts to set curricular requirements for high school graduation, and to determine if language study will be among them. Across the country, foreign language course offerings remain dismally low, and as the Pew report shows, even when language study is mandated the guidelines for fulfillment of requirements tend to be flexible at best:
Some foreign-language learning standards can be met by taking non-language classes. For example, California requires one course in either the arts or a foreign language (including American Sign Language) for all high school students. Oklahomans can opt to take two years of the same foreign language or “of computer technology approved for college admission requirements.” Conversely, New Jersey students must earn “at least five credits in world languages” or demonstrate proficiency in a language other than English before they can graduate high school.
As schools are not the primary setting for foreign language acquisition in the United States, those U.S. residents with fluency in another language are typically heritage speakers who learned in the home.
Citing the European Union’s geography and higher frequency of cross-border movement, arguments in this debate often reflect upon a greater need for linguistic fluency in Europe than exists in the U.S. However, it is useful to note that English ranks at or near the top of the list of foreign languages studied across the board in European nations, and is often a language requirement for advancement into higher education programs.
Now, while this fact does tend to benefit American travelers abroad, who are known to remark on the ease of traveling in European countries where residents tend to speak at least rudimentary English, it reveals concerning undercurrents in American educational priorities.
By failing to emphasize foreign language instruction in schools, the American education system demonstrates a lack of investment in the intercultural understanding that goes hand-in-hand with learning another language. It’s hardly an exaggeration to express concern over the aptitude of American students in future international business and diplomatic exchanges in an increasingly globalized society — aptitudes that can be built and strengthened through robust language and cultural studies in the classroom.