Language Barriers: Why All Americans Should Learn a Second Language
And How the U.S. School System De-Prioritizes Language Learning
The only language I speak is English. It’s not that strange for a white girl from Western New York. Most of the people I grew up around only spoke English. I wasn’t exposed to other languages very often — unless you count Dora the Explorer (I don’t).
But I’ve always been drawn to different cultures. Europe has always fascinated me, and I dreamed for years about visiting countries like France and Spain.
When it was time to start studying a language in the 7th grade, I chose French. I excelled at it and studied it through my senior year of high school. I even added Spanish during my sophomore year. I loved language, and French and Spanish were always two of my favorite classes.
So it’s really no surprise to anyone that I married a man who was not white and not American. My husband is Moroccan and he speaks three languages — making me look pathetically uncultured.
And it’s not just him. My brother-in-law in Spain knows Arabic, French, Spanish and some English. Even his wife is able to speak English practically fluently, in addition to her native Spanish. Their 4-year-old daughter already knows her colors in English.
Yet, despite my enjoyable years studying French and Spanish in school, I can really only speak English. How sad is that?
It’s not really surprising, considering that I stopped studying languages after I graduated high school. In college, since I didn’t want to make a career out of it, it wasn’t a priority to study a language. But the real problem here isn’t that I stopped; it’s that I should’ve started a long time ago.
Language Learning in the USA
In the U.S. school system, learning another language just isn’t a priority. When I was in school, we didn’t start until 7th grade (age 12) and we were only required to take it for a minimum of three years.
Now, three years may sound like a lot, but when you’re only studying it for 45 minutes, 5 days a week, in three years, you don’t get much further than “bonjour” and “oui.”
And after those three years? Most students forget the majority of what they learned. What’s even the point of studying the language if you never actually manage to learn it?
Because of these low standards of language learning, most Americans only know English. Then, when Americans travel to other countries, they expect everyone else to know English too. As a culture, we’re so self-centered that we expect everyone in the world to adapt for us.
But Americans have it all wrong. We should be looking to our foreign counterparts for how to frame our language learning programs.
Language Learning in Other Countries
Studies like this one from Cornell show that the earlier a child learns a second language the better. In fact, some say the best age to learn is from infancy to six years old.
Yet, Americans don’t start learning until they are 12 years old. Something here doesn’t add up.
When my husband was a child in Morocco, he studied both French and Arabic in his elementary school years. And many European schools do this as well. And they don’t stop after three years. They continue studying all the way up through high school.
This is why when we travel to other countries like France or Spain, many people do speak English. They’ve studied it for years, so they can converse with us. But we can’t do the same in return.
Connecting Across Cultures
Last year, when I traveled to Morocco to see my husband’s home country and meet some of his extended family, I spent much of that trip in the dark. I barely understood a word of Arabic, and they didn’t speak English, so I wasn’t really able to connect with any of my husband’s family members.
Now, Moroccan Arabic isn’t the easiest language, and it’s difficult to learn if you haven’t spoken it from birth. But if my husband had been Spanish or French, I probably would have run into the same problem.
Communication is key to building relationships. But when you don’t know the language, you aren’t able to communicate, and relationships suffer or are nonexistent.
It’s no secret that the U.S. has issues with foreign relations. That other cultures and languages are seen as “other” rather than embraced. And our language learning system in schools reflects that.
But we can’t let ourselves be so isolated, not as a country and not as individuals. By fully experiencing other cultures, which language is a huge part of, we expand our minds and widen our perspectives.
There’s a whole world out there, beyond the U.S. borders. Learning another language may help the lines we’ve built up between other countries fade, just a little bit. I’m certainly going to make an effort to strengthen my language skills in Arabic, French and Spanish. And maybe this will help me better connect with my new family.