Language is the essence of humanity and arguably what sets us apart from animals. The many different facets of language — speaking, reading and writing — are vital to most cultures. Both written and unwritten, Romance or Germanic, people around the world speak a variety of languages.
An estimated 1.2 billion people are native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, according to the online language learning service, Babble. Spanish is second in line for the world’s most spoken language with an estimate of more than 400 million native speakers, while English ranks third with almost 360 million.
Because of these numbers, at least in many other parts of the world, there is a precedent to learn English over all other languages, even if it is not the most predominant language by population.
In many European countries, students are required to learn at least one year of a foreign language, especially during elementary school. Countries like Malta, Lichtenstein and Luxembourg have 100 percent of their students enrolled in a foreign language class during their elementary education, according to European Commission’s Eurostat.
Meanwhile outside Europe, in nations such as India, an estimated 125 million people can speak English, making it second to the United States in its total number of English speakers, despite the fact that Hindi is the majority language, according to The World Atlas.
It’s no surprise that European and Indian children have quite a substantial knowledge of foreign languages over their American counterparts which, according to Pew Research Center, the United States has no universal language learning requirements for its students. In other words, every single region in the United States has different standards, as does every single university when it comes to prospective students. Not having a concrete system of language learning in the United States is not only confusing but also ineffective in helping colleges accept students.
At the University of Missouri—Columbia for example, it is required for incoming freshman to have at least two years of a foreign language under their belt, whereas at schools like the University of California—Los Angeles or the University of Illinois—Urbana/Champaign recommend three to four years. The United States is inconsistent with foreign language requirements.
An idea that is prevalent among some Americans, as cited by language service ‘Mimic Method,’ is, ‘Why exactly would I learn a language, let alone force my child to learn one when everyone outside the United States speaks English on at least a basic level?’
Well, for one, that mindset is America-centric.
Second, learning a second language not only gives Americans the ability to navigate other parts of the world easier, but studying language actually increases brain function, as well. In a 2012 study conducted at Sweden’s Lund University, two groups were given time to intensely study a variety of topics over a period of three months. With those who studied language, the part of the brain responsible for taking new information, the hippocampus, showed signs of growth; whereas, the other groups’ did not develop at the same rate, despite the fact that they were also studying particular topics at an intensive level.
What is also important to acknowledge when it comes to Americans learning languages is that the United States has a culture that heavily emphasizes assimilation or blending into the existing culture as much as possible. While we, as a nation, like to pride ourselves on being a ‘melting pot,’ that cultural idea disregards the diversity of immigrants. Instead, we should strive to be ‘a salad,’ a diverse mixture of cultural backgrounds that are celebrated, not ignored. We can still all be united under one flag, but at the end of the day, we can also be united in our diversity and retain our unique individual cultures.
Learning a language provides a plethora of opportunities for American youth, not just in the business world but also the ability to form bonds and understand those who come from other cultures. What really makes the world turn is not cultural insularity but the ability to be understanding and curious as to what the world and its people have in store.
Should their be set requirements for American children to learn languages? What exactly should they be and why? Comment below!