Foreign Language Learning In US Schools

The Brown Daily Herald discusses the lack of a foreign language requirement at Brown – it is one of the few Ivy League universities not to have any.

On the one hand, a foreign language requirement does seem like a good thing. I enjoy studying languages and took a few classes by choice rather than necessity; my school required two years at the university level or a placement test to show you were at that level or above, which I did with French.

However, studying foreign languages isn’t valuable just because I like it (though that’s not a bad way for the world to work, is it?): it is obviously a tangible skill; it gives the learner insight into another culture as well as into what it is like to be a language learner; it demonstrates that the learner is willing to adapt to someone else, rather than expecting someone else to adapt to him or her.

The reality is, though – university is late to start studying a language; perhaps requiring people to do so will have some effect, or at least the realization that it is in fact wise to start earlier. But I don’t feel convinced that making a foreign language a requirement (only) at university level is going to result in more and better speakers of foreign languages.

So should US students start learning foreign languages in public elementary schools? My experience is that their counterparts abroad start in elementary school with English and often another foreign language, and most people readily believe it’s easier to learn from a young age. However, some also argue that the results of US public schools in other subjects are less than stellar, and as such, should be improved before new subjects are added.

There’s also the simple practical fact that learning a foreign language is just not as pressing of an issue for US children as it is for children from other countries. I strongly believe that learning a foreign language benefits a person in a multitude of ways – and not only as a job skill but also to understand the culture. The reality is, though, that it’s not as urgent as it could be yet.

One of the roadblocks is probably that it’s easy to build arguments like the ones I’ve outlined above.

But it has to start somewhere.