American Students Deserve a Multilingual Education

Opinion | Global Education

American Students Deserve a Multilingual Education

By Harlie Rush     Jul 7, 2023

American Students Deserve a Multilingual Education

As an English language teacher in an international primary school and a language learner myself, I often think about how many K-12 students in the United States are given the opportunity to study another language in school. The answer? Not enough.

There are a number of research organizations collecting data about foreign language study and multilingualism in the U.S., however, with insufficient and lagging data from schools, this research has its limitations. Nationwide research is also relatively infrequent — the most recent in-depth study of U.S. language education was published in 2017, with data from less than half of the country’s K-12 schools.

While our understanding of language education is incomplete, we know that most K-12 students in American public schools do not have the opportunity to study an additional language to proficiency. Without a national standard or requirement, foreign language enrollment and assessment varies widely by state, but Edweek reported in 2017 that one in five K-12 students in the U.S. were studying a world language or American Sign Language.

Though there are a number of strong language programs across the country, a 2016 report published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showed evidence of declines in foreign language course offerings in elementary schools and middle schools over the years. And only 11 states had foreign language graduation requirements according to a national survey of K-16 foreign language enrollment published in 2017 by the American Councils for International Education. Of the small portion of the U.S. which identifies as multilingual, only a small percentage report having acquired the additional language in a school setting, emphasizing just how few students successfully learn another language through their K-12 education.

The result is a largely monolingual population, in a largely multilingual world. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 78 percent of the U.S. population speaks only English as of 2019. This isn’t surprising, given that many public school students in the U.S. don’t have an opportunity to learn a new language in school until middle or high school.

American students deserve a multilingual education, and the multitude of benefits deriving from studying an additional language — but many students, especially those in public schools, do not have an opportunity until late in their schooling, if at all.

A Late Start

Like many students, an opportunity to learn another language did not come to me until I was a teenager. My high school offered an introductory French course and I was not excited about it. Not only did learning French seem impossible, it seemed irrelevant. I had no plans to ever leave the U.S., and in my hometown in southern Virginia, I rarely encountered people who spoke languages other than English, and certainly hadn’t met anyone who spoke French.

Two years later, after taking multiple classes, I couldn’t speak French, nor could I understand any conversational exchange, no matter how brief. I chalked it up to being “too old” to learn a new language (a common misconception, which some research disputes).

In college six years later, with a foreign language requirement to complete my degree, I studied German under a passionate bilingual educator, an accomplished polyglot and linguist. I entered the course with a fixed mindset — I had already failed at learning a new language at a younger age, and had no expectations of success this time. I feared for my GPA. My professor, perhaps sensing my unease, patiently and thoroughly illustrated the benefits of language learning, as well as the science behind language acquisition, demonstrating daily the extensive connections between languages and the many purposes of multilingualism.

With a newly developed understanding of the relevance of language learning, I found myself conversationally fluent in German in less than a year. Today, more than ten years after my first French class, I am fluent in Mandarin, Chinese, and I'm studying a fourth language. This positive experience — and the professor who made it possible — dramatically altered the course of my education and my career, inspiring me to study applied linguistics and to eventually become a language teacher.

Societal perceptions of foreign languages shape policy and education, continuing a cycle of monolingualism that cannot be broken without a serious shift. National education leaders need to reconsider the benefits of foreign language learning if we ever hope to join the multilingual world, or access the many benefits of multilingual learning.

The Perks of Multilingualism

Motivation is a highly influential factor contributing to how successful a learner will be with language acquisition — if you don’t see the relevance, you probably won’t learn the language. But in my experience, many Americans perceive learning a new language as insignificant or impractical.

There are persistent myths which impede student motivation to learn an additional language. There’s the one about how there’s an ideal age window to learn another language and if you’re not in it, you’re out of luck. There’s another that says learning a new language will inhibit acquisition and retention of your first language. But these barriers are just that — myths. In reality, the advantages of a multilingual education extend far beyond acquiring a new language, including benefits transcending communication altogether.

Multilingualism has evident links to creativity and cognitive flexibility, and may even shape our thinking, determining how we access and categorize concepts. Studying multiple languages is also proven to contribute to academic achievement in both language and non-language areas. And research also shows cognitive advantages in realms such as working memory and even possibly delaying the onset of dementia through enhanced executive control.

Here’s some good news. Contrary to popular belief, studying another language is not an all-or-nothing game. The advantages of language learning do not begin or end at fluency. Even children who are merely exposed to another language show communicative advantages, because actively learning or listening to another language can make us more effective communicators and more capable of seeing other perspectives.

You don’t necessarily need to leave the U.S. to take advantage of the perks of multilingualism. While the majority of the population is monolingual, America is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, with more than 350 languages spoken within its borders, including a wealth of Indigenous and heritage languages.

English speakers are at an advantage since English is used as a lingua franca in countries across the world and it is extraordinary to have the ability to communicate with people across the globe through English. But it’s also important to recognize that English-only communication is limited. Monolingual English speakers miss out on a wealth of economic and cultural opportunities, such as developing a deeper understanding of intercultural communication, opportunities to work or study abroad or to gain employment at international companies.

The Change We Need

A major goal of education is to prepare young people with the skills they will need in the future, whether to continue their education or find employment, but predicting what skills will be most beneficial is challenging. One thing is for sure: There is unmet demand for multilingual employees across fields including business, national defense, science and more. Offering more language courses in American public schools — especially in elementary and middle school — will prepare our students for multitudes of current opportunities, as well as those we can’t yet anticipate.

Language education is already prioritized globally, but remains inaccessible to most students and teachers in the U.S. Foreign language courses are often cut in response to budget constraints or a lack of interest, leading to a reduction in the diversity of languages being taught and the extent of study available or required. Some universities have eliminated foreign language study prerequisites altogether, reinforcing the notion that language skills are expendable.

As an English language educator, it’s easy to see the benefits of language learning from helping students build communication and creative problem-solving skills to developing the ability to consider multiple perspectives. The students I teach have the opportunity to acquire knowledge in two or more languages, and as a result, they are deeply curious about the world outside of their personal experiences.

Beyond learning to communicate with exponentially more people in the world, learning new languages expands my students’ access to countless other cultures and contexts. Countries and cultures across the globe become intriguing rather than intimidating, and my students want to learn more. Multilingual students can consume media from places they have never been to and communicate with people they would otherwise not understand, with a level of comfort and awareness that transcends translation and help them begin to understand just how large the world is.

Language learning goes beyond advancing what a student already knows. Invaluably, it opens doors, extending their understanding of what they don’t yet know. Language shapes how we see others, and how we see ourselves. In an increasingly globalized world, multilingualism in education is more valuable than ever before.

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