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.
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.)
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.
According 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” (AAAS Archive, 1781, cited in the Report, iii-iv.). 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.
Note: Sorry for my long absence! I actually wrote this as an assignment for a grad school class. Grad school is hard!