The United States and foreign languages: a one-sided relationship

Over the summer, I had the great privilege of studying in Sweden. I was there to improve my Swedish and learn about the culture, both of which I did. However, I learned something else too—I discovered how far behind the U.S. lags when it comes to learning a second language.

In my program, I was surrounded by people from Europe and Asia. We all were united in two ways. One, we all wanted to learn Swedish. Two, we all could speak English, despite our varying countries of origin.

According to a public opinion study done on behalf of the European Commission in late 2005, over 50 percent of Europeans could hold a conversation in a second language and 25 percent could hold a conversation in a third language.

In contrast, according to a 2006 General Social Survey in the U.S., a mere 25 percent of Americans could speak a language other than English. What accounts for this 25 percent discrepancy?

If I had to guess, I would say that it probably has to do with the fact that many children in Europe start learning a second language while in elementary school. In fact, in Sweden’s elementary curriculum, English is considered a compulsory subject.

Here in the States, generally speaking, we don’t start learning a second language until middle school, and then, only about two years’ worth of foreign language is necessary for high school graduation.

We are (rightfully) encouraged to take math and science courses by the U.S. government. However, there is still a pressing need to learn a foreign language in the age of globalization. Communication is the basis of any endeavor.

Sadly, due to economic pressures and an increasingly stingy public, foreign language courses are more often than not first on the chopping block at schools. If they managed to be “saved,” then the courses are taught with a significant reduction in staff, or worse, they’re taught online.

How is one to properly learn a language with the mechanized voice and contrived situations one so often finds online? It’s impossible!

There is so much more to a language than just learning the words. One must consider voice inflection, hand gestures, body language, eye contact, appropriateness of the situation—there’s an endless list of factors to consider.

In terms of language learning, perhaps another reason why Europe is ahead of the U.S is that it seems that Europeans are more curious about other cultures. For example, American television and music is quite popular and prolific outside of the U.S.

Conversely, how popular is European music here? When was the last time you watched a foreign film or listened to music in a foreign language? On a regular basis, many of us don’t.

We’re content—or rather, comfortable—with our own movies and music, our own culture. In my opinion, many Americans just don’t have the spark of curiosity necessary to successfully learn another language. We just don’t have any desire to expand our horizons, which is a shame because we’re missing out on so many rich cultures.

So what can you do to promote foreign language in your own life and become a better-rounded global citizen? Well, for starters, choose a language and actually stick with it. But even more simply, take time out of your week to listen to foreign music, watch a foreign film, peruse a foreign newspaper or merely read the foreign instructions on your shampoo bottle.

Just do something! Take an active interest in the world around you.