In the United States, children take English lessons, which suits them rather well. The dominant global language right now happens to be their default language. That may be one reason why only 20% of U.S. K-12 students are learning a foreign language, according to new data from the Pew Research Center.
This is surprisingly low compared to Europe, where more than 90% of young people study at least one foreign language, and often more than one. For a young Romanian, for example, it makes sense to start learning other languages early, because their mother tongue is not spoken far beyond the country’s borders. This may explain why 100% of students study foreign languages there, as do young people in Austria, Cyprus, France, Norway, Malta, Luxembourg and Lichtenstein.
Another likely reason for the interest in foreign languages in Europe is the concentration of languages within countries and across the Union. In Switzerland, for example, there are four official national languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh. In Belgium, there are three official languages: French, German and Dutch. Indeed, Belgium is so linguistically complex that English is the best apolitical language option in the country, as Nikhil Sonnad of Quartz recently noted. Europeans also share more borders with speakers of other languages than Americans, who only have English and French north of Canada and Spanish south of the border in Mexico.
Yet the language data also points to a problem in American education. As Pew Research points out, European countries have national standards for language study, and students must pass exams in the languages learned. In contrast, the 50 US states each have their own education standards. There is no uniform language study requirement across the country.
A 2017 report from the nonprofit American Councils for International Education found that New Jersey has the most students studying a language at 51%, followed by the District of Columbia at 47% and Wisconsin at 36%. But most states have less than 25% participation. In New Mexico, Arizona and Arkansas, only 9% study a foreign language. Among American students who choose another language, Spanish is the most popular language.
Another factor at play, beyond geography and the lack of national standards, may also be the extent to which learning another language is a practical necessity. English speakers don’t really need to deepen their Dutch, for example. English is an official language in 59 countries, the first language of 400 million speakers worldwide, spoken by a billion others.
Some claim that English is so popular, in fact, that it is downright oppressive. Writing for The Guardian in July, Jacob Mikanowski accused the English language of “taking over the planet”. “It’s unavoidable: the language of world affairs, the Internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology,” he argues. “And wherever he goes, he leaves behind a trail of death: crushed dialects.” Similarly, on August 3, Brian Gallagher of Nautilus noted that English is “taking over the world and aligning human thought with Anglo-American interests”.
It is therefore not surprising that children in the United States do not feel much linguistic pressure. Yet learning a foreign language is important for reasons that go beyond our practical obligations to communicate with people in another language. It is a window on a new vision of the world, a way of understanding how our fellow human beings think – multilingualism even modifies perceptions of time. American children who don’t learn another language can still easily find work in an English-dominated global economy. But they will lose the development of critical cultural intelligence, such as learning to build relationships and communicate with strangers.