should foreign language classes be required in college?

In the December 2016 “Room for Debate” from the Opinion Pages of The New York Times, three high school students shared their thoughts on then-recent proposal by Princeton University that would require college students to study another language, even if they are already proficient in another language. The students’ responses varied significantly. Yes, one said. It’s a global world out there and students need to be able to communicate in another language besides English in order to be competitive. No, said the second. Learning to think is more important than struggling to express your thoughts in another language. It depends, said the third. It depends because it depends on a student’s goals; really, if we’re going to require students to learn a second language, we should really starting requiring it in kindergarten.

These students’ responses are not unlike responses politicians and educators have thrown around in the past, but what I find interesting is the common threads they all share. First, each of these students recognizes that, by the time a student reaches college, it’s already way too late to introduce them to a second language: The time to learn a language is when you’re young and your brain’s neural pathways are still being formed. Second, they all recognize the inherent value of knowing a second (or third, or fourth) language. The way they define these values are different, but they all see second-language learning as being beneficial. And third, they all feel that something needs to be changed about the way second-language learning is being approached in the United States. The American education system is falling short and, in so doing, failing our children.

And I have to say, I agree. The American education system is failing its children, and something does need to be done — long before students reach college. Learning a second language is critical for all kinds of reasons, but the one I feel most strongly about is one that isn’t usually talked about — or at least isn’t fully understood.

英速全體合照

With a group of 5th graders in Taiwan. Can you find me? :D

When I was 25 I moved to Taiwan. I moved to a little city called Sanjhih, about an hour north of Taipei, to teach English at a camp for 5th graders. Originally I was only going to stay for seven months, but I ended up staying for two years, and afterward I lived in Hong Kong for a year. In both cities I found myself surrounded by an unfamiliar people, language, and culture, and at first it was really hard. I was incredibly homesick and thought many times about returning home. Ultimately, though, it was my students who changed my mind. My Taiwanese students — bright, inquisitive 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds — were for the most part incredibly sweet, and I was blown away not only by their sweetness, but also by their similarity to the 9-, 10-, and 11-year-olds I knew back home, as well as by their aptitude for English. Many of my students were already quite adept English speakers — fluent, even — despite the drastic difference between the English language and their native tongues. But more than that, English or no English, they were kids like any other kids found anywhere else in the world. The barriers that cultures and countries and religion and political systems create wasn’t in place yet. These kids were just KIDS. (People are PEOPLE.)

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Suffice it to say when I came back to the United States, I returned with a new set of eyes. I could no longer see my own country in the same light, nor I could I see those from other countries in the same light. A foreigner struggling to ask for directions in broken English was a person in a strange land trying to get by, just as I had been trying to get by, struggling to ask for directions in Mandarin at a 7-11 in Taiwan. The noisy group of tourists from mainland China was no longer an annoying group of tourists but an interesting group of people with a unique culture and background. Living abroad and the little bit of Mandarin and Cantonese I’d learned while I was there had changed my perspective on the entire world immensely, and I would never be able to go back to the narrower mindset I’d had before.

That said, it is very true that, because I wasn’t (and still am not) fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese, I felt very isolated while living abroad. I know that if I’d been able to communicate more easily, I would have gained a better understanding of the culture in which I was living. I also recognized while living abroad just how difficult it would be to master a second language like Mandarin, and that if I would ever have been able to do so, I would need to have started very young — very young, as in, kindergarten.

jGHNy51According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, American students lag way behind European students in language learning. In her article presenting the study, Kat Devlin says, “Across Europe, students typically begin studying their first foreign language as a required school subject between the ages of 6 and 9. Furthermore, studying a second foreign language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries . . . Meanwhile, far fewer K-12 students in the U.S. participate in foreign language education. Throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 20 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in foreign language classes, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit American Councils for International Education.”

This is, I feel, more than a shame — it’s doing our students harm. The cognitive benefits of learning a second language have been proven time and time again. The potential for improved job prospects and general understanding of other cultures is also vastly improved by knowledge of other languages. The United States is home to people from all different backgrounds, with roughly 65.3 million Americans over the age of four (i.e., approx. 21 percent) speaking a language other than English at home (2015 U.S. Census). If this is the case, and if my own experience in Asia is true (which it most certainly is), how much could we stand to gain if we started implementing the European language-learning model in our country? What would the results be if we started teaching our kids a second language in kindergarten? How much wiser would they be? How much more understanding of others? How much more competitive in the global job market? How much more culturally aware both abroad and at home?

At the rate the United States is going, we’ll likely never know. Things seem to move at a snails’ pace when it comes to making changes in education at the federal level. According to Dan Davidson’s “Notes on the American Academy Commission Report: America’s Languages (2017),” the founders of our country understood that “the study of language in the U.S. was a complex and varied endeavor, so much so that they determined not to establish an official state language for the new nation. They supported inquiries into what they referred to as the ‘rationale, genius and idiom of the English language,’” as well as examined Native American languages and linguistics more generally, as they believed that an “appreciation of the plurality of languages would improve communication domestically and internationally, and help the new nation understand its place in a changing world.” And yet here we are more than 200 years later, lagging behind the rest of the world in this very key area.

That said, if anyone brings up the argument, “Well, if we’re going to teach a second language, what language should we teach? There are so many here in the States, after all—how do you choose?” To them, I say, Any spoken language! It doesn’t matter. The results and benefits of knowing a second or third are the same no matter what language is being studied.

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With my language-exchange friends in Taiwan–Mandarin is hard!

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Note: Sorry for my long absence! I actually wrote this as an assignment for a grad school class. Grad school is hard!

17 thoughts

  1. My first language was Cantonese. With deep regret, I can no longer speak it or understand it. The circumstances of my childhood led me to eschew all things to do with my heritage.

    I agree with you that learning another language when young is a good thing.

    It’s nice to see you blogging again Jessica. I’ve missed your posts.

    • Hi Gaz, good to hear from you, too! I hate that I’ve let my blog go in recent months. Just don’t have time to do it all–or maybe I’m just too much of a perfectionist and need to lower my standards? Lol.

      Your comment about eschewing your native Cantonese is crazy to me. I bet you’d still be able to pick it up easier than someone like me who never learned it as a child. Language is fascinating and I definitely wish I were fluent in more than just English.

      Hope you have a great day!

  2. Hi Jess, I agree, our country has not been as good at promoting other languages as the rest of Europe (surprise, surprise, not), which is shameful. I can get by in French but get by is about it. I always feel embarrassed if I’m in another country and can’t speak their language when they can speak mine.

    • Hi Fraggle, well at least you can “get by” in French! I took the equivalent of two years of French in high school, and two in college, and I was never even good enough to “get by.” The sad joke about, “What do you call someone who only speaks one language?–An American” is unfortunately all too accurate.

  3. Hey, Jess! I’ve missed you and have been wondering how you’ve been; but haven’t wanted to ‘stress’ you out by asking what’s up.

    I don’t know that college is the right time or not; but I know I’ve studied different languages on and off since I was in high school and it’s much harder now. I don’t know if all of it is neural pathways or not — as an adult, I have all the adult responsibilities to run interference, too.

    • Hi Matt, good to hear from you, too! Yeah, I’ve totally put blogging on the shelf in recent months. When I’m not working on school stuff, I’m doing my other job these days, and there just isn’t time to do it all! I miss writing here, though. Maybe I can use this post as a springboard for more.

      I know what you mean about adult responsibilities getting in the way. Also, when you’re surrounded by English speakers and don’t need the language you’re studying in day-to-day life, it’s hard to really make progress in a second language. I think studying a second language is still beneficial, though. If nothing else, it can make us more sympathetic to non-native speakers we run into.

      Hope you’re having a great week!

  4. Glad to see you pop in. You’re a blogger I miss when you’re not here.

    Regarding the post’s topic, I don’t know if this adds much to the topic, but while I wholeheartedly agree with you about all of your reasons we should teach our children a second language (or third or fourth), to me the difficulty lies in the need to be immersed in it to really learn the language and be able to use it. I took three years of Spanish in high school and finished with hardly any ability to actually communicate in the language. That was a long time ago and I think the teaching of a foreign language has improved, but still unless the educational system comes up with a way to immerse students in the foreign language of their choice and there are opportunities out in the real world to practice those skills, I’m not sure how effective it can be.

    • Hi Mark, I hear ya! I studied French in high school and college and never even knew enough to “get by” when I went to France. Truly learning a second language takes immersion, and that’s pretty impossible when you’re surrounded by people who speak your native tongue. I think if you’d started earlier, though, you would have learned more than you did by waiting until high school. At least I know I would have!

      Nice to hear from you, too, by the way. I hate that I’ve let my blog go for so long. Maybe I can use this as a spring board for more posts. I’m going to try!

      • When my kids started school, they were exposed to sign language and Spanish and they loved it. But after a year or two of it, the language instruction went away until high school when they both took two years of Spanish but they can’t speak it any better than I can. Yes, it needs to start earlier and remain a part of the regular curriculum throughout the K-12 years.

        I know you’re busy so I won’t hold your absence against you. ;)

  5. Glad you shared your assignment here. Couldn’t agree more with all your points. But us third world country travelers have different eyes. I always think that the best thing anybody can do is travel. Just to open their minds to the possibilities that there can be other ways of being and that those ways need not be wrong, just different. I’m 44 and still struggling to learn local languages just so that I can be embarrassing but not ashamed, as I’d rather look silly than not try. Nice to have you around in this blogosphere, by the way.

  6. I took two years of Spanish in high school, which comes in handy when you live in Texas. Sadly, I wasn’t required to take any in college and, at the time, wasn’t interested. I really wish it had been a requirement. At this point, I’d love to learn a second language. The “can you find me” picture is funny; it wasn’t too hard to find the blond hair in that group!

  7. One day I hope you come visit Hong Kong when I am there, it would be fun to talk about the different cultures, the world in general, and how great people are no matter where they come from or where we are :-) Learning a second language is a great way to learn how to express your thoughts period (be it in your first tongue or not). Learning Mandarin, there were time I could actually express myself better in Mandarin than in English – and this helped me to better express myself in English over time. The main concept being instead of just running away with a sentence, to pause and think first :-) I suppose similar to running away with a thought in this comment section ;-)
    Wishing you a great spring ahead, Jessica, and happy trails wherever you go ~ hopefully either Hong Kong, Czech or Seattle :-)

  8. Great article! I bet you’re not alone. I don’t know how the UK measures up officially – and we have one or two different native languages of our own (eg Welsh, Gaelic), in addition to English and the scores of other languages spoken by immigrants and workers from overseas. BUT, my instinct is that we are shockingly bad at learning other people’s tongues – maybe a hangover from Imperial times when we were arrogant enough to believe we didn’t have to bother – and, besides, they speak English in heaven, don’t they? Brits are very good at cobbling together words and phrases they think are right in their personal version of a foreign language, and then looking surprised when they’re not understood. The fall-back, of course, is to speak loudly, and slowly – in English… :-)

  9. I did my undergrad in English literature. The Canadian university I went, required 1 foreign language at university level in order to graduate with English lit. Hon.BA. It is excellent way to appreciate one’s major language and literature degree studies.

    Having said the above, though I resented retaking French twice….in hindsight knowing some French does increase a tiny bit of comfort level when travelling several different trips in Quebec and later, to France. Language shapes our thinking. As you know, Canadian schoolchildren are required to take French as a 2nd language starting in elementary school up to at least gr. 9 in high school. It’s not surprising some of the Europeans “feel” closer to the Canadians, just on this alone.

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