Americans seem to like the idea of learning a language. There are multiple companies and apps that can supposedly turn you fluent in a month, boasting everything from Spanish to Swahili to Klingon. Then there’s the usual Internet clickbait: “Learn in 5 Days!” But when it comes down to the actual process of learning a language, especially in school, the U.S. is considerably less eager.
Most Americans speak English and nothing else. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of Americans aged five and older speak a foreign language at home. Other surveys, however, suggest that only 10% of the population is “proficient” in a foreign language. The data also show that whether or not an American becomes multilingual is influenced more by their heritage than by anything else. Of those who speak another language at home, 57% were born outside the U.S., and the majority of the rest have immigrant parents. Native-born Americans whose ancestors immigrated decades or centuries earlier (in other words, the majority of the U.S. population) are therefore much less likely to be fluent in another language.
In the rest of the world, however, multilingualism is encouraged if not expected. In Europe, for instance, 54% of the population can speak a foreign language, 25% can speak two other languages and 10% can speak three. Unlike in the U.S., Europe emphasizes rigorous formal education in foreign languages, with most European countries requiring that all students study a foreign language, and more than twenty requiring that students study a second foreign language for at least a year.
The U.S. offers foreign language education as well, but the subject doesn’t hold such a high priority. In America, there is no national foreign language mandate, leaving that responsibility to states and districts. So an American kid’s odds of getting a good foreign language education vary widely depending on where they live. Only nine states specifically require high school students to graduate with some amount of foreign language instruction—the others either have no requirement, or they allow students to choose between taking language courses and other options such as arts or computer science.
Between states, the foreign language disparity can be extremely wide. New Jersey has the highest percentage of students studying a foreign language: 51%. (That’s still low compared to European levels). New Jersey is also one of the nine states with a specific foreign language requirement, and its per-pupil spending of $17,572 is one of the highest in the country. Arizona, on the other hand, has the lowest percentage of students (9%) studying a foreign language. They have no statewide requirement and spend $7,208 per pupil. Foreign language classes tend to be more difficult and possibly more expensive to offer, given that the teacher and lesson materials have to be bilingual, so it makes sense that states with higher school spending would have better foreign language availability.
But no matter how well-funded a school district is or what mandates are in place, in America, the way that foreign language is taught usually does not lead to fluency. Less than 1% of American adults are fluent in a foreign language they learned in school. Often this is because of the age at which pupils first begin studying the language. According to the neuroscientific journal Cognition, aspiring speakers should begin learning a new language before they reach the age of ten, when the brain can most easily rewire in accordance with another language. If the person starts learning after ten, however, their chances of becoming as fluent as a native speaker are “nearly impossible.” European kids begin studying their second languages between the ages of six and nine, but three quarters of American elementary schools don’t offer foreign language at all. Most American kids begin learning a foreign language when the critical period for doing so has already passed. When few of them master the language, there are then fewer people to teach it to the next generation.
The U.S. does have something of an excuse, in that it’s a global superpower that dictates a sizable chunk of the Internet and entertainment media. Recent estimates, however, suggest that English is actually losing ground online, with the fastest growth in Internet users seen in China and in Arabic-speaking regions. K-pop has already swept the globe in what some are calling a “Korean Wave,” threatening America’s position as the global distributor of mass media. While it may seem convenient for American students not to have to worry about learning two languages by the time they graduate, it could end up costing them not only in their job prospects (obviously, bilingual candidates are more marketable), but in their influence in global culture as well.