For American Students, Language Shouldn’t be so Foreign


American students can greatly benefit from learning another language (Courtesy of Twitter).

I stared down at my paper, face fixed in a resentful scowl. The paper was my sophomore year Spanish final and no matter how hard I concentrated, searching the far-reaches of my brain in a desperate panic, I just couldn’t remember the preterite tense of hacer. Or poder. And maybe a couple other verbs. This was my fourth year taking Spanish and I was still barely capable of holding a conversation, absolutely inept at understanding speech at a pace of more than seventy words per minute and evidently incompetent at passing an exam.

While this anecdote perhaps reflects ineffective study habits, it is also indicative of a much larger issue in American schools: insufficient foreign language instruction.

Sixty-six percent of European adults report having knowledge of more than one language, compared to only 20 percent of American adults. More troubling is the proportion of individuals who are competent in a language they studied in an American classroom.

According to The Atlantic, the number stands at less than one percent. As a whole, bilingualism exists far less in the United States than other developed nations and the individuals who do possess a command of more than one language did not gain this skill from American schooling.

A variety of factors play a role including the lack of foreign language instructors and resources. Most influential is the age at which they begin studying. According to the Commission on Language Learning, only 25 percent of elementary schools offer foreign language instruction. This data is imbued with psychological significance when one considers the science of language acquisition.

First researched and theorized by Noam Chomsky, there is a “critical period” in which one must begin linguistic practice in order to gain full proficiency. After this window of time closes it is much harder to learn a new language and it is possible that you will never be able to fully understand its grammatical nuances. This is the case for too many American students. They do not begin foreign language classes until middle or high school, after their critical period has ended. At this point the task of fluency is too daunting and the vast majority will never achieve it.

In essence, students are being set up for failure, spending time studying languages they have little chance of acquiring. This has to change. American schools should begin teaching foreign language in kindergarten or even younger, as is done in China and other developed nations. This would grant American students the best possible chance of success.

American students would benefit from learning a second language for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious advantage is the ability to interact with people in other nations. While English still prevails as the primary language in which international business and diplomacy is conducted, one’s chances of success in these departments is enhanced by the command of a second language.

A bilingual American would be able to converse with not only business leaders and government officials, who are many times English speakers, but average citizens in a foreign nation as well. This would ensure a more thorough communication from which agreements would be better reached. American schools should encourage bilingualism because it helps foster cultural exchange and empathy.

Bilingualism should be a focus of American schools for the cognitive benefits as well. Several studies have accounted the intellectual advantages of learning a second language. According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, bilingual children have a stronger working memory than children who only spoke one language.
While those opposed to foreign language instruction often raise the inevitable dilemma of what language should be taught, the cognitive benefits of bilingualism would prevail for language instruction. Furthermore, learning a second language would still be beneficial even if never utilized for communication purposes.

American schools should seek to produce worldly and intelligent adults who are not only prepared to conquer national problems, but international ones as well. The betterment of foreign language instruction is essential in achieving this goal.


Rachel Gow, FCRH ’22, is undecided and from Worcester, Massachusetts.