Staring out into the dead parking lot from our stuffy, cramp portable, was a daily routine practiced amongst students in my high school Japanese class. By the beginning of my second year, our teacher had given up on teaching us and actually studying Japanese became a self-taught concept at school. In an environment that totally bored me, I would often wonder if this was how most foreign languages were across America: unmotivated students learning from an unqualified teacher only to fulfill their graduation requirement, which usually brings into question why foreign language is a necessity to graduate and why the program is on the verge of extinction.
Although foreign language is a skill that would be very beneficial to students on a cognitive and cultural perspective, advocates for foreign language have yet to provide a solution that successfully convinces investors to fund programs. The passion for foreign language, as a result significantly differs amongst Americans due to the diverse nature of their surroundings that consequently encourages incompetence. Rather than focusing on achieving fluency, the goal of learning foreign language should be a way to expose others a different culture instead.
Unlike the United States, most developed countries such as those in Europe and Asia heavily emphasize foreign language education. Observed by Kat Devlin, an associate researcher for the Pew Research Center, statistics show a stark contrast in foreign language enrollment between the two regions from an objective stance. Students are exposed to not only their native tongue in primary but a multitude of others.
Europe’s expectations for students to begin a second language by secondary education just goes to show how much Europe values the benefits of foreign language, enforced through national mandates (Devlin). The United States, on the other hand, appear to show no signs of increasing their low K-12 enrollment of only 20% across the entire nation. From the data, Devlin suggests that this lack of effort may reflect an American’s view of crucial skills to become successful. Perhaps learning a language in America, specifically, may become rare someday, but Amelia Friedman, founder of the Student Language Exchange, argues that in order to meet the expectations of those who equate learning with fluency, we should provide quality resources.
If people are always assuming that the goal of learning a language is becoming fluent, without appropriate help that philosophy ultimately leads them down a path filled with frustration and impatience. In her article, “America’s Lacking Language Skills”, Friedman underscores the needs for quality resources if the public believes that learning languages lost its purpose in society. Quoting Richard Brecht, Friedman shares similar views with the former director of the National Foreign Language Center, in which “[i]t isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible” (Brecht).
This idea of how people unconsciously limit themselves prior to learning is an unhealthy mindset that discourages productivity. Friedman argues that as a society, those who hold power should hold responsibility in establishing a positive environment geared towards improving foreign language instruction. While she acknowledges that great difficulty in persuading the public it is a worthwhile investment, Friedman believes the approach to increasing language proficiency should be the same as mastering any other common subject when she writes, “language proficiency is just as hard to build as it is to maintain.
But the same could be said even about core subjects, such as math” (Friedman). Almost all core classes in American education (math, social studies, science, etc.) are given plenty of resources that help hone skills required to learn the subject. The same process could be applied to teaching foreign languages. However, people have yet to overcome the idea that funding foreign language is expensive when it should be treated as any other subject. Later on, Friedman explains a possible solution to solve America’s language deficit: dual-language programs.
Programs such as these are likely the closest stage to immersion and less costly. By teaching in two languages, daily practice and application increases compared traditional methods. On the downside, Friedman also notes the insufficient number of qualified teachers to guide students which undermines any effort to even emphasize foreign language education. Bryan Caplan, an American economist, readily attacks Friedman’s firm beliefs with his article, “The Numbers Speak: Foreign Language Requirements Are a Waste of Time and Money”.
Caplan’s article outlines the disadvantages of allotting time and effort to learning a new language. A summation of his points would be: (1) “Lots of stuff that sounds good isn’t worth doing.” (2) “Doubling an input normally less than doubles output.” (3) “Foreign language fluency is more common in other countries for a reason” (Caplan). His style of writing reflects the opinion of a businessman due to the absent practical nature of studying languages as Caplan describes it to be. Attaining a level what Caplan would describe as “well” from high school knowledge only captures “merely 2.5% of GSS respondents” from the survey. It is no surprise that barely anyone can become fluent regardless of dedication in high school.
Caplan’s disapproval certainly provides insight on the counter argument, however, he has yet to elaborate about why it does not matter for Americans give any attention to language; he has only stated them in broad terms so far. Much like Caplan, Delfin Carbonell, a linguist and educator, also believes in the insignificance of language but shockingly, his explanation of why learning should not be enforced oversimplify the complications. Caplan’s argument is more logical and socially acceptable in contrast with Carbonell’s shallow thoughts.
Opposing language, Delfin Carbonell was surprisingly once a foreign language advocate, and his article “Learning a Second Language is a Waste of Time” proves that. Overall, it belittles the effort and joy experienced from language enrichment blatantly advising us, “[to] not ever try to learn Spanish if you only speak English, and do not attempt to speak English if you already speak the language of Cervantes”.
This type of diction is frequently used and as a result the arrogant nature fails to acknowledge foreign language as a skill. The world has millions of people who comfortably speak only one language and lead happy lives, Carbonell points out. Well, those people happen to be live in parts of the world where it is acceptable to remain monolingual. Leading developed countries, such as Europe and Asia, accentuate learning a second language, yet Carbonell would say it is meaningless in educating a massive population when they can barely retain any of it.
What Carbonell cannot understand is that language during modern times is for the sake of cultural competence and communication. This ideology contains many flaws one in which that it already forgets America’s rich diversity. Understanding one another through language whether that be amongst Americans or people of other nations, grounds a functioning society. Society should strive to increase exposure in contrast to follow Carbonell’s “[l]et others make the effort” attitude.
As a whole, everyone’s efforts should be accounted for to show respect for a culture no matter the amount learned. The oversimplification in Carbonell’s claims thus fall short of Caplan’s intellectual quality. Art Carden, however, does justice to the ideology initially introduced by Caplan, further developing and adding to Caplan’s opinions.
As a professor of economics, Carden undoubtedly writes from a practical standpoint. Often referring to Caplan’s article, Carden elaborates on Caplan’s ideas shifting the attention towards the global purpose of language. Addressing the integration of language in our European counterparts, his article, “Should Schools Require Foreign Languages? Doubtful.”, logically explains why learning foreign language is applicable under certain circumstances. Carden implements his strongest explanation through an anecdotal analogy:
This summer, my family is taking a cross-country road trip. On our first day of driving, I believe we’re driving from Birmingham to Columbia, Missouri. According to Google Maps it’ll be about a 9-hour drive through parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. It’s roughly the same driving time as the trip from Hamburg, Germany to Paris, but on a drive from Hamburg to Paris you would pass through four countries (Germany, Holland, Belgium, France) speaking three different languages (German, Dutch, and French).
Using an anecdotal evidence, Carden emphasizes the unsuccessful results when there really is no chance for Americans to use it. The story depicts the sad reality where the world revolves around English. So, the reasons why Americans lack foreign language knowledge could be concluded as an absence of practice. It is not uncommon for Europeans, to know multiple languages, but this is only because of the countries and their proximities. Practice allows people to retain their knowledge so naturally Europeans know more than Americans in that area of study.
While Americans are inferior to Europeans in regard to language proficiency, Carden suggests that we should invest our time into skills that contribute to culture through other ways, such as music and art, writing that “my life would also be better if I played piano, raced triathlons, or mastered the art of French cooking. Even equipped with this knowledge, I chose—and choose—to do other things”. The decision to choose things over others is a privilege we should not waste.
He emphasizes a person’s right to choose other things suggesting that foreign language should be saved for another time Though his response to this question, “Would the world be a better place if Americans knew more languages?”, is “it absolutely would”, what matters to Carden more is the fact that “the world would be a better place with more of a lot of things (great music, great artwork) and less of a lot of other things (obesity, poverty)”.
Say America decided on enforcing foreign language education. Despite the opinions of Caplan, Carbonell, and Carden, whose arguments focus on the lack of dedication to practice, Florence Myles, a researcher for the MEITS project (Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies), explores the implementation of foreign language beginning at the primary level in favor for advocators.
Those who lobby for language often believe providing the foundations at a young age benefits long term retention. According to Myles’ research, while children show immense enthusiasm towards learning language, adults merely learned because they were asked to. Though enthusiasm does not always correlate with skill, it was no surprise that children were inferior to adults during the learning process since adults can readily apply a multitude of cognitive skills.
Driving Myles’ policy paper were the following questions: 1) “Is younger better? What is the research evidence?” and (2) “So, is younger really better when learning a foreign language in the classroom?” The end of his paper discusses the likeliness of passing policies that make language compulsory and from the results, the chances are very low.
An approach, like so, to increase proficiency requires a considerable amount money and time so Myles advises people not to fall for “[t]he common belief that learning a foreign language early equates with it being easy to learn [since it] does not really match their experience”. In saying so, Myles concludes that enthusiasm requires nurturing from the government who has yet to see language as a valuable resource. With this, there seems to be no immediate concern or consequence where most Americans only speak English.
Throughout this paper, the sources previously analyzed share one common problem with foreign language: which one to study out of the thousands of known tongues? One of the main disadvantages for its advancement circulate around what language to study, brought up by Friedman and Carbonell. Opposite of that notion, for critiques such as Caplan and Carden, a challenging question would be: What subjects can we deem valuable if language were to be replaced?
The shortcomings of each author fail to provide a realistic solution for the debate; although a majority of them (excluding Carbonell) have expressed their appreciation for language. Friedman calls for the investment on resources while economists Caplan and Carden object the concept. Attaining fluency is the assumed goal by the authors, however it should not be the primary focus of when learning.
The presumption that society imposes upon students, detracts from the true purpose of studying foreign language. Of course, gaining fluency is an achievement to be proud of but so is cultural awareness. At the moment, immersion is one of the best ways to learn and gives the person direct exposure to the culture. Inspiring communication, language study follows second. Cultural enrichment through language should therefore be the focus of learning since many social conflicts result from ignorance and the government also seems to recognize that.
Why else would state sponsored programs such as NSLI-Y (National Security Language Initiative for Youth) exist? NSLI-Y is a state sponsored student exchange program whose goal is to secure possibly useful languages like Korean, Arabic, and Russian. The government is most likely making up for the slashed funding in foreign language at the primary and secondary level, yet those programs are rarely promoted to students who express the willingness to commit. Often times, students must search for the program themselves and realize there is no time for studying abroad. If people want increase language proficiency, then actively promoting these programs should be the first step.
In an ideal world, everyone should have the opportunity to study language, including Americans, but English as of now is unlikely to not be popular. Yes, attempting to introduce it at an earlier age or improving teaching methods does have a chance to spark interest within people, but the fact that modern society will always see the usefulness of English will never go away, snatching America’s chance to redeem itself.