Spanish, French, ASL, or a couple of other potential languages depending on the high school you go to. Both high schools and colleges have some form of foreign language requirements. But what do they really do for our students? Is it worth the money we pour into the programs? Are students actually capable of becoming fluent in the bare minimum schools require in order to receive a degree? Are there better uses of time? And are they learning other skills or developing appreciation for cultures they may not have otherwise learned about?
Not many people necessarily have strong opinions regarding the foreign language requirements for college admission other than the students who are doing the homework and just trying to get the credit so that they can move on with their lives, but let’s take a look at why these foreign languages came about. Perhaps that will help us know whether it’s worth keeping them.
History and Background of Foreign Language Requirements for College & High School
Today, in America, approximately 25% of adults feel comfortable carrying a conversation in a different language. Despite the growing social movements calling for diversity and inclusion as well as foreign language requirements in high school, a grand majority of Americans are monolingual.
Why Foreign Language Education in America is Lacking
There are a couple of reasons as to why the foreign language education in America is rather lacking.
The first has to do with simple geography. It is important to note that much of Europe and other developed nations have far more developed foreign language programs than America does which is interesting considering the fact that America doesn’t actually have an official language. While these European nations have their own official languages, they also are surrounded by other nations with differing languages, perhaps pressuring citizens to become multilingual. America is known as the “melting pot” of the world where we have floods of immigrants from all nations; unfortunately, America is also known to kill foreign languages as students of immigrants go to public school and develop English. With as much distance between America and many other nations, and with so many other nations learning English, it’s hard to place such a huge emphasis on obtaining foreign languages.
Another reason that points to the state of foreign language affairs in America is that of ideology. Some languages (often unconsciously so) are considered more educated than other languages, and these ideologies are prevalent. English is by far considered the most “educated” in the minds of most Americans. And while many globally involved nations speak English either as a first or second language, this assumption and attitude comes with a price. Despite the prevalence of English in the educated world, opportunities are lost when language barriers are present due to the fact that Americans simply don’t feel a need or desire to learn another language.
National Policy on Education and Funding
One of the last reasons we find our foreign language requirements dwindling is due to national policy in regards to education and funding. Large scale programs focusing on keeping students ahead in math and science pushes students into other arenas. And we’re losing any kind of emphasis on other subjects.
In 2017, a mere 20% of Americans were learning a foreign language in elementary or secondary schools. This is shocking considering that the next developed nation closest to that statistic is Belgium with 64%. European students learning a foreign language drastically outnumber American students. The median statistic for European students learning a foreign language is 92%, with seven of those countries requiring ALL students to obtain a foreign language.
So now we know that America is drastically behind the rest of the developed world in learning a foreign language due to different situations and trends, but what does that mean for us? Is it crippling our students? Are we simply not putting enough emphasis on it to make it worth it?
Arguments For Foreign Language Requirements
1) Desirable Skill in Global Economy
Simply put, it is a highly desirable skill in the increasingly global economy. One survey showed that 70% of employers believe Spanish will be in high demand in coming years. The US Department of Labor estimates a 42% rise in demand for multilingual employees. Regardless of whether you develop an appreciation for the culture whose language you are studying, having this skill is going to give you a significant, competitive edge over other prospective candidates for a job. This is especially true when you’re looking at successful, international companies looking for seamless relationships between nations. Let’s even move beyond getting the job. Knowing a second language will give you opportunities to move up in a company if there’s potential for promotions in other countries. With this comes extra opportunities to maneuver salaries.
2. Deeper Appreciation for Culture
It is likely that you will gain a deeper appreciation for the culture whose language you are learning. Language is unequivocally tied to culture. This is why communist countries seek to control language; they know they can control thought. Values are determined by language and emphasis. Learning the values of other nations is going to contribute towards helping you understand and love those countries. Traditions are also dramatically intertwined with language. Any step towards learning about another nation is going to help wipe away former prejudices or misunderstandings. The global world could use a little more appreciation.
Arguments Against Foreign Language Requirements
1. It comes at the expense of other skills students could be learning.
We’re often hearing dreadful news on TV about how America is behind in one subject or another in the global economy. This doesn’t just apply to subjects but to skills in general. Considering how little schools require in order to pass a foreign language class, it might be better to just skip the requirement altogether and push students towards skills that they will continue to develop and work with.
For example, you could push a girl in her junior year of high school towards an AP Statistics class or a foreign language requirement where she’ll learn a smattering of Spanish words that will follow her to adulthood. Which is going to serve her more? Well honestly, it’s going to depend on which she sticks with. If her experience with Spanish ends with a class in high school, it may be more beneficial to push her in a different direction that she will build upon. The world may be a better place if Americans learned a second language. But that does not equate to the fact that it would be a good use of resources. The world would be a better place with just about any kind of further education that can be offered.
2) It’s not necessarily useful.
Though bilingual Europeans significantly outnumber bilingual Americans, it is to their advantage. In a relatively small amount of time, Europeans can travel Germany, Holland, Belgium, and France and be completely surrounded by another language. Do you know how far you have to drive to get to Mexico from most of the country? And even then, when traveling to foreign countries, you’re still likely to find English speakers.
3) Less than 1 in 100 students actually go on to speak the language they study in school.
Though 25% of Americans speak a foreign language (this is self-assessed), only 0.7% actually learned it in school. A majority of bilingual Americans learned it in the home. Basically, less than 1 in 100 students actually go on to speak the language they study in school. Seems like we’re spending a lot of resources for students to pick up such a small part of a language that it’s basically useless.
4) Pouring in more resources isn’t going to necessarily help.
If we’re already paying tons for foreign language teachers and pushing students through two years of language requirements (average for American high schools) and achieving next to nothing in language development, how many more resources will need to be dedicated to the subject in order to have a notable and worthwhile impact?
I took more Spanish in high school than the average student and became somewhat proficient. However, most of my proficiency came from the fact that one of my best friends spoke Spanish and the other spoke a close cousin of the language, Italian. Most of my practice and therefore, fluency, came from speaking with my best friends as well as the other Hispanics I was surrounded by in school. Unfortunately, that language is now mostly gone now that I’ve moved to Utah and have no one to speak with. While it was fun to be able to speak for a while, I’ve probably actually used the language a grand total of three times since I left Texas. I recognize that this is one anecdote among a million, but I feel like I developed the language even further than the rest of my peers and it still hasn’t served me much.
Offer the foreign language credits. Help students understand the usefulness of a second language, but is it truly worth making them a requirement? Probably not. Unless we’re willing to take away resources from other areas in order to provide an adequate amount of education, making the small portion required isn’t going to push students in a direction that helps them. It’s just going to take them away from other subjects that will. Consider that on top of the fact that many students won’t have the same opportunities to practice the foreign language I, or other Europeans for that matter, will have, it’s unlikely that students will be able to develop fluency even with extra education.