I wish you saw the look on your face after reading that statement. Foreign languages in the United States? They don’t go together! Everybody knows that. Not everyone knows the reasons behind it, though. So why is learning other tongues so unpopular there?
Differences between Europe and the United States
While the U.S. and languages other than English don’t go together very well, Europe and foreign languages do. Maybe the main reason can be found in demographics. Not only is English the lingua franca, all of the states use it. So English is all that Americans need as long as they stay in the U.S. Europe is a mess in this sense. Smaller territory, many countries and even more different languages. Naturally, learning a foreign speech is a must for a European.
The general opinion of learning foreign languages is quite low in the U.S. Richard Brecht from Center for Advanced Study of Language in University of Maryland spoke for the majority of Americans:
“It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.”
Also, language education might seem as a bad investment in the states. That’s why foreign language programmes receive limited funding and aren’t as numerous as in Europe. The fundamental question here is the value of Spanish, French, Chinese, etc. in the U.S. It’s true that many people think of multilingualism as benefitial. However, many still don’t. It is disputed whether languages return greater profits than social studies or arts.
Statistics reveal the situation
Let’s see what the numbers say.
The average of students learning at least 2 foreign languages in countries of EU is 51% as of 2014. Almost every student in any country of EU has to learn at least one foreign tongue at some point. In comparison, about 7% of college students were learning a foreign language in the United States in 2015.
The access to foreign languages in Europe and America differ as well. First foreign language is compulsory in every country of EU. Except for countries like Ireland and Scotland. Not that these cases are much different. Irish pupils are educated to be bilingual anyway. It’s just that neither English nor Irish Gaelic is considered “foreign”. In Scotland, taking foreign language courses is not necessary. Still, schools must offer at least one such course for those who are interested.
Interestingly, if you are born in Belgium, you will have to start learning German, Dutch or French (depending on your school and the region you live in) as soon as you’re 3 years old!
Foreign languages in the United States aren’t so popular. There are no mandatory rules on a national level regarding them. Only 1 out of 4 elementary schools offer foreign language education (as of 2008). To make the matters worse, the access is declining. About 31% of schools offered such courses in 1997. This number is very low compared to what we see in Europe.
A deeper look into foreign languages in the United States
These numbers don’t reflect all the reality, however. The U.S. is a multicultural country. It’s not only English that people speak in. There were 20,8% Americans speaking a language other than English at their home as of 2013. That’s about 62 million people. It might be significant that 34 million among those are immigrants and 25 million reported that they don’t speak English very well.
93% of high schools in the U.S. offered foreign language education in 2008. However, according to the Atlantic, less than 1% of adults in America are proficient in a foreign language that they have studied in a classroom. It’s not that the quality of language education in America is low. It has probably more to do with the fact that learning in schools is not as efficient as learning by active practice.
Even if we subtract the 34 million immigrants, we get 26 million people managing without English at their home. Less than 1% of all the population (those who successfully learnt a language in a classroom) is still nothing compared to this number. It means that traditional language courses don’t work very well for Americans. Maybe it has to do with their belief that acquisition of any foreign tongue is impossible. Maybe they are partially right, as school is indeed a poor choice for language learners. Those who can actually speak in other tongues acquire such skills by other means. Means like real-life situations, practice and alternative learning methods such as Bliu Bliu.
Who knows, maybe foreign languages in the United States could be more popular. If only people knew what really works in acquiring them. There’s no need to invest in foreign language education. Anybody can become multilingual. Even Americans living in a huge country where English is enough. The scepticism expressed by Brecht wouldn’t exist.
Do you think otherwise? Just try Bliu Bliu.