We all know the stereotype of the confused American: lost in a foreign country, unable to communicate with the people there and so resorting to simply yelling at them louder in English, the crowd forming while the native speaker stands their patiently, waiting to stop being spat on as his frustration rises because it isn't his fault that this loud American has come into his country essentially mute. And while this is definitely a stereotype and there are exceptions, this is the reality for more people than not, a disadvantage that America has given herself and that manifests itself in more ways than one.
Neuroscientists tell us that every child is born with countless numbers of potential neural connections, connections that are created through daily experiences. Later in development - around puberty - unused or unformed connections are "pruned" away, letting more brainpower be diverted into tasks that are needed on a day-to-day basis. At this point, the ability to learn a language is greatly diminished - not only is the creation of foreign sounds harder, but so is acquisition of new vocabulary and grammar patterns, especially devices (such as a subjunctive tense) and words that may not be present in the child's first language.
And when is foreign language primarily taught in American public schools? Almost no education systems offer language classes before beginning in sixth grade or entry into middle school (and only 58% of American middle schools have foreign language classes), so instruction at earliest coincides almost exactly when children are hitting puberty; keep in mind that this is very much variable by education system, since we have no federal mandates for language learning. Within my school system, language is considered an "elective", and only two years are required for graduation (so, if taken in middle school, kids can technically drop language after freshman year). California considers language an "arts" class, meaning kids can opt to not even take foreign language classes if they prefer music or visual arts since they need only one credit in high school.
Yes, many American students continue foreign language studies for longer than their mandate based on college admission requirements, but demonstrated proficiency and use of the language isn't on your application. Of the 25% of American adults who say they can speak two languages (a number that is abysmally low), only 43% say they can speak it well, and 7% of the multilinguals said they acquired that language skill in school.
So.. where does this stack up next to the rest of the world? Extremely poorly. Most European countries begin learning their first foreign language between 6-9yo, well before puberty onset makes language acquisition more difficult. And yes, I said FIRST foreign language, because studying a SECOND foreign language is mandatory in at least twenty European countries. And the two European countries that do not have mandatory foreign language education are Ireland - in which students learn both English and Gaelic anyway, they are just not considered foreign languages - and Scotland, where language classes are still offered to students beginning at 10yo. 73% of surveyed European elementary/primary school students were studying English as of Pew's most recent study in 2009-2010, even in countries outside the United Kingdom that did not customarily speak English as their primary language.
And this is just in Europe - South American countries like Brazil begin learning English early on, and many Asian countries send students to study in other countries to acquire language skills (China Daily reported 6,725 middle school students came to America to study in 2010 alone). Czechoslovakian students learn their second language beginning in third grade and their mandatory third beginning before eighth grade, an age at which almost half of American students have received no exposure to a second language.
Not only does speaking a foreign language benefit students' thinking abilities, understanding of the world and variance of culture within it and allow for greater job opportunities, a population of students who are prepared to face the increasingly global economy that America is (hopefully) helping to create will mean great things for their home country. But equally dangerous is the reality that we do NOT have that population, so we are losing an edge on the international market that will be almost impossible to recover from.
Australia began to see themselves in a similar situation, fearing that they would be cut out of Asian regional trade and meetings if their students did not learn Asian languages. So instead of whining and demanding that China, India, Indonesia and Japan speak English, the 2012 white paper proposed by former prime minister Kevin Rudd suggested job quotas guaranteeing employment for kids who learned and mastered these four big Asian languages - to a fair degree of success.
And this brings up another point - the selection of languages offered to American schools. Spanish is by far the most studied language by American students, with French far behind and followed by German, although both of these languages have experienced declines in the commonality of their teaching. The amount of schools offering Chinese and Arabic increased almost imperceptibly at grade school levels and much more noticeably at college levels, but numbers of proficient students remain incredibly low, especially considering how utilitarian these languages would be in international relationships.
So what do we do, how do we fix this? It's a deep hole we've buried ourselves in, but it hasn't collapsed and trapped us yet. First of all, American governments at all levels need to stop cutting funding to educational programs every time there needs to be a cut because an educated population is important. Prioritizing the intelligence of the future of our country is an absolute must; if cutting must be done, we can discuss the emphasis given to extracurricular activities that have little to know future value for the country (that will probably be another article), because the amount of money that is being spent on students is not equating to better schooling.
But more than anything we need to look at the language education we are giving our students. On the surface, bilingualism improves memory, task completion and ability to learn new things. Past that, however, knowing more than one language increases acceptance and patience with novelty groups and individuals, deepens cultural understandings that allow for closer, more personal relationships and business connections and helps one experience the world in a deeper way.
It's great that everyone is learning English because it gives us a common ground to stand on. But beyond that? Not everyone will always use English... and now we are back to being the bumbling American fool that didn't see a word of a second language until he was 14, an age where his international job competitors began their third.