Oct 17th, 2021, 03:20 PM

The Importance of Being Polyglot

By Sophia Constantino
Image credit: Unsplash/Andrew Ebrahim
Learning other languages brings cognitive and cultural benefits, yet the American school system is far behind when it comes to plurilingualism.

Suppose Math is the nerdy, Einstein-looking uncle who marries a trophy wife and always has chalk on his pants. Science is the annoying little cousin who continues to singe his eyebrows when his experiments backfire. This makes World Language the cool, rich aunt who has always made your mom jealous, who splits her time between apartments and lovers in New York City, Paris, and Barcelona. She always comes back home on a whim to spoil you with fun presents, but she never gets enough respect.

In the United States, learning foreign languages is barely considered essential — a stark contrast to language learning in other countries. As the daughter of two passionate polyglots who have committed their professional lives to language education, I heard these sentiments many times growing up. I often heard my parents say that their expertise did not get the respect or funding it deserved in our home country. At both state and national levels, school curricula in the United States are filled with many course requirements, but world language study is not always among them.  

Source: Pew Research Center


Moving to Paris for graduate school further confirms this observation. Non-Americans here speak at least some English. As an American, even if the only French word I knew was croissant, I could get by relying on the ability of my French counterparts to speak my first language. My expat friends who earn spending money by caring for small Parisian children are hired by parents who require that they speak only English to their little ones.

In most of the United States, language courses other than English are not even offered until secondary school. As a result, students are bogged down with “more important” core subjects throughout those short years. Marie Curie, I am not, but I fulfilled the science requirements my high school mandated without much complaint, and a great ambivalence towards calculus was enough to complete the prerequisite. The problem arose when, on top of the French class already squeezed into the third-period time slot, I sought to add Spanish to my course load. God forbid required subjects be replaced with yet another language. The only solution to my scheduling conflict was to relinquish my lunch break and eat at the back of Señora DiCaprio’s seventh-period class.

Source: Unsplash

Having studied world languages in an academic setting my entire life, I can attest first-hand that learning a language other than English is grossly undervalued in the United States, especially at the primary level from elementary through high school. Many languages taught in American education systems are not even those most spoken throughout the world. According to an article published in The Atlantic, a recent study showed that, on average, about 198,000 U.S. students take French courses, and only 64 study Bengali. This fact is even more shocking when comparing the 75 million who speak French globally to the 193 million people who speak Bengali. 

In my high school, we were offered three options — German, French, and Spanish — and among those languages, competency beyond basic proficiency was not required for graduation. However, comparing the top ten languages most commonly spoken throughout the world against the top ten of those most taught in United States universities, only four languages make both lists —Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese.

Only 20 percent of K-12 students in America study a language other than English. Moreover, only ten states and the District of Columbia explicitly make world language learning a high school graduation requirement. That is a far cry from the 92 percent average in Europe, for example. 

With this context, it only makes sense that mastery of a language in the U.S. comes few and far between and is quickly lost if not used in regular practice. Instead, we are required to understand the bare minimum, and any learning done to grasp further and retain a language must be done in college-level courses or on one’s time.

The clear case against English native speakers needing to learn other languages is that a second, third, or fourth language is not necessary because English is so widely spoken. First, I should note that I am not lumping in the percentage of Americans who have a native tongue other than English. For example, more people are speaking Spanish in the U.S. than in Spain itself and Colombia. Sounds great, right? But don't get too excited. About 41 million of those 53 million Spanish speakers in the U.S. are native speakers and either came to the U.S. knowing Spanish or were born into families who spoke Spanish at home.

This in itself is a testament to the fact that it is imperative Americans learn a second language. Even in our home country, English-only speakers are becoming outnumbered. It is widely accepted among that cohort that everyone else will retain their native tongue, freeing them from the burden of reciprocating that effort, even if they are traveling outside the U.S. To me, this has always seemed obnoxious and presumptuous, especially being surrounded by countries that speak languages other than English. Everyone wave to Canada and Mexico directly above and below! Unfortunately, the result of minimal funding and encouragement of world language education plays out almost like a superiority complex in this country, crossing ever so slightly into ethnocentrism and xenophobia.

Source: Unsplash

Be that as it may, whether the majority of this country believes it or not, the benefits of learning another language are unquestionable. Students like myself, who continue to study world languages throughout their education, past the curriculum requirements, find that employers coveted bilingualism on resumes which is striking when considering the substantial population who do not speak a language other than English. On top of this, bilingual students have improved memory, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, enhanced concentration, ability to multitask, and better listening skills

Not encouraging the learning of a new language not only stunts the growth of American minds but stunts the growth of camaraderie among cultures. Moreover, by learning a language other than their own, a person also embraces a culture other than their own. According to Michael Byram of Durham University, “In the best cases, language and culture teaching produces, through the development of linguistic and intercultural competence, alternative conceptualizations of the world and contributes to the education... of the individual in society.”

Source: Unsplash

So, where is the disconnect? With both cognitive and cultural benefits, why does the majority of the American population not think of plurilingualism as a valuable skill, as they do with technology, mathematics, or engineering?

According to Richard Brecht of the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, the answer is that people in this country do not think it is essential, but that they do not believe it is possible. And why would they? The typical American is instilled with the notion that learning a world language is a bonus skill, not a required one; a resume booster, not a cognitive asset. Ten years old is the recommended maximum age to start learning a new language, if not earlier. The brain is still being developed until that point, and after that, it becomes increasingly difficult. As a result, most American students start learning world languages, and therefore world cultures other than their own are far too late and end the learning far too early.

We are set up for failure in this category. Therefore, we must demand better not only for ourselves but for the future of the global community and communication.