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Essay: Should all students learn a second language in school?

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  • Subject area(s): Education essays
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  • Published: September 13, 2021*
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  • Should all students learn a second language in school?
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Almost everyone remembers being required to take a high school foreign language class. Whether it was Spanish, French, Latin, or maybe even German, we all had to face it. However, the sad reality of this is that very few of us can recall anything we learned from these classes. This is what some may consider an “epidemic” spreading across the United States. Less and less high school and college students are taking their foreign language classes seriously. Now, you may ask the reasoning behind why this is such a big issue. To this question, I will respond with a quote from psycholinguist Frank Smith, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way” (Jordan 5).

All too often, high schoolers and college students alike, are unconcerned with learning a foreign language. For most high-level schools, students are required to take at least two years of a foreign language. To be quite frank, most of these students never pay attention in class, or cheat on all of their assignments. (Trust me, I’ve seen it first hand.) There is a major sense of unimportance surrounding these types of classes, and students are not the only ones. In the article, “The Numbers Speak: Foreign Language Requirements Are a Waste of Time and Money,” Brian Caplan shares his opinion on the ordeal. Caplan believes that requiring students to learn a foreign language is, for lack of better words, torturous (Caplan 3). He claims that even though some may become “inspired” as a result of learning a foreign language, there are really no other benefits (3).

I must admit, the foreign language classes in our school systems are lacking. We rarely see anyone becoming fluent in the language, nor do the classes teach anything “useful” about the culture. It seems as though they only make it a high school requirement because they have to. There is no emphasis on the importance of foreign language or its wide variety of potential uses. In addition to this, Caplan argues his next point by saying, “Americans start in an unusually abundant and diverse economic, social, and cultural pool, so we have little reason to stray. And if Americans do decide to sample other pools, we can literally travel the world without needing to learn a word of another language.”

On the one hand, I understand Caplan’s statement. It is true that Americans can easily travel the world and become interested in a new culture or area without having to learn its language. On the other hand, having the skill-set and knowledge to communicate with the people of that region makes you more likely to become more immersed in the culture and its people. Nevertheless, Caplan is not alone in this debate.

Delfín Carbonell, who writes for the Huffington Post, shares the same opinion. Carbonell, too, believes that learning a foreign language is a waste of students time (2). He and Caplan both agree on the point that spending some of your high school years learning a foreign language you will not remember once you finish the course, is undoubtedly a waste (2, Caplan 2). Carbonell also contends that it takes many years to become skillfully fluent in a foreign language and even so, Natives and locals will still scoff at and imitate our efforts (2). He insists there are many people who only know one language, yet still lead prosperous lives and thrive in their area(s) of work (2). By focusing on this, Carbonell overlooks the deeper issue of helping people who have yet to find a steady job or start their adult lives. Carbonell and Caplan have their opinions, but I also have mine. The simple fact is, they seem to be missing the bigger picture in all of this.

Although both Carbonell and Caplan present a compelling case for their views of foreign language learning, I do not concur. In my opinion, learning a foreign language still remains one of the most important things you should do in your life. Furthermore, not only learning a language, but teaching it the right way is what’s most important. I am not alone in this view.

Fatıma Gimatdinova Çağaç, in her article “Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language at an Early Age,” heavily expounds on this point. Fatima emphasizes the value of having a knowledgeable foreign language teacher and what a large impact it can make on a students life. She believes a good teacher should incorporate the cultural values and backgrounds of a student and relate it to the language being taught (ÇAĞAÇ 136). This way, the student will feel a type of connection with the topic or language at hand and be inclined to learn more (136).

This point is also mentioned by author Sherry Thompson when writing about certain methods teachers use when teaching a foreign student the English language. Thompson, in agreement with ÇAĞAÇ, believes that the way a teacher incorporates her students into the language or lesson is an enormous part of the learning experience (5).

I am convinced that the teacher has such an important job to do. Not only in their teaching, but with their encouragement, support, and relationships as well. But aside from this, the foreign language curriculum in our schools is deficient. As harsh as it sounds, it’s the truth. We do not instil the significance of a foreign language into young students, and it shows in the carryover to their teenage years. We do not see the seriousness of teaching students to learn a foreign language. In fact, the statistics of the United States foreign language curriculum, compared to those of other countries, is quite shocking (to say the least). In Europe, for example, more than ninety percent of students in elementary schools are made to learn English (Beale 2). Counties around the world see new languages as an opportunity and a pathway, and make sure it is a top priority to be taught in schools (2). Meanwhile, schools in the United States have never made this a priority (2). A 2006 study showed that about 200 million Chinese students were learning English, while only about 24,000 American students were learning their language of Chinese (3). Schools all over the U.S. are seeing a rise in budget cuts, which ultimately leads to the slack in the foreign language classes (1). The reason these classes are the first to go? Simple. They are not seen as a necessary course of study, like reading or history may be (2).

Author David L. Sigsbee mentions this exact problem in his article “Why Americans Don’t Study Foreign Languages and What We Can Do About That.” Sigsbee argues his point by mentioning not only the cuts of these classes but their lack of continuity throughout the years (47). Students often take one year of foreign language in elementary school, two years their freshman and sophomore years of high school, and two years during college (46-47). With little-to-no continuous study, how are students expected to become fluent? Basically, what we’re saying is, there is no constant instruction throughout their school years, which does students no good. With all of this said, one can now see Caplan and Carbonell’s point of view, but I would still disagree. Yes, the school curriculum of foreign languages is lacking, but throwing it out altogether is entirely unnecessary. Not ever attempting to learn a foreign language because of the missteps in our educational system? Preposterous.

According to the findings of Rowena Alegria, a third-generation Denver native and editor of a popular Spanish magazine, the Hispanic population in the United States has more than doubled in the past few years (Alegria 1). She states that the benefits of speaking English in this country are undoubtedly overwhelming. If you do not speak English, you are at a tremendous disadvantage when going anywhere or doing anything within our country (2). Not to sound dissuading, but I do have some questions about this whole issue. Yes, I do get it, we are in the United States, where English is our home language, but why do we put such a large emphasis on immigrants learning English, yet when we visit them, we can’t speak one word of theirs? Immigrants come to the United States to chase their dreams. The U.S. is a melting pot for all. But recently, it seems to only be a melting pot for those who abide by the same rules, speak the same language, and believe the same things. To sum up my point, why do we make such a big deal about helping others learn and helping them thrive as American citizens, but we just disregard them when they can not communicate properly with us? How do you think that would make you feel? You come to a place with hopes and dreams as you prepare to start a new life, but upon arrival, everyone seems indifferent to your goals. That is not what America was founded on, and these are things that society should not tolerate.

When you expand your horizons and open yourself up to more things, a world of new opportunities arises. Just like when you know/learn another language, it opens doors you never thought of before. According to the economic advocacy organization New American Economy, the author gives readers a look into how important knowing a second language can be. “Reports show that employers increasingly desire workers who speak multiple languages, particularly in industries that provide services involving a high degree of human interaction” (New American Economy 1). What the author is saying is that there are companies all across the world (not only America) that are more likely to pick someone for the job who knows a foreign language over someone who does not. This “know” does not mean “taking 2 years of Spanish in high school” know, this means “I am fluent and fully capable of speaking another language” know. David Sigsbee also speaks about this issue. Sigsbee points out that the world has become so universal in its connections with people, that the need to more effectively communicate with others is in higher demand (46).

Many areas of life that will require people to know a foreign language. Not only in education, but in work and day-to-day life as well. Studies from psychologists at the University of Chicago have shown that people who are fluent in another language tend to make more level-headed and logical decisions (Merritt 3).

In addition to improving someone’s chance for a job, learning a foreign language at an early age can also help you improve your mind and life in almost every area (2-3). In the findings of Fatima ÇAĞAÇ, she adds that it is much easier for a child to learn a foreign language than an adult, who already has developed a first language consistency (ÇAĞAÇ 132). The brains of children are much more susceptible and responsive to learning a new language because of their natural-born abilities to absorb sounds and information, contrary to the brain of a fully developed adult (132). Children, who are always open and eager to learn, are considered “superior language learners” (133).

More benefits of learning a foreign language at an early age include: thinking flexibility, heightened brain development, job opportunities later in life, better communication with others, and a better understanding of other cultures besides their own (133). In fact, studies have shown that people who are bilingual usually do unquestionably better on standardized tests (Burton 2). These people also have a better and larger capacity of memories (2). Psychologist Dr. Neel Burton has done his research and has come to find that in countries like South Africa, India, and Malaysia, almost everyone living there is fluent in one or more languages (1). But as we all know, this is hardly true for students in the United States. In short, the foreign language curriculum should be taught and instilled in children from an early age to enhance the results of it later in life. This is not to say that it should be forced upon students to become bilingual, but rather to encourage teaching them earlier to enhance their knowledge later in life. Nevertheless, Carbonell and Caplan still would contend that this has an adverse effect on a child’s developing brain, but I would argue otherwise. There have been many studies done, and plenty of evidence gathered to create a strong case against them. To add to the list, we can look at a recent examination of hospital records in Canada. These records revealed that bilingual patients were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three to four years later than those who can only speak one language (2). Yet, some still do not believe the astounding amount of research in support of this. Not only does becoming bilingual have its mental advantages, but it also raises the bar for social and cultural interactions with others.

All in all, it is clear that knowing a foreign language and speaking it fluently can significantly enhance your life’s opportunities. Not only this, but it can also help you in becoming a well-rounded and dependable person. Despite the views from Carbonell and Caplan, many would be fully convinced of these facts. However, their arguments were strong, and each had reasonable and persuasive opinions. Consequently, someone may not yet have been convinced. The facts and statistics are simple. The knowledge of a foreign language is highly admired and useful in today’s growing economy and many opportunities. Employers often look for these qualities in a person for them to be hired, especially in high-paying jobs. Although Delfin Carbonell does make a point when he talks about how unnecessary it is, if we take a step back and see how helpful it can be, the point is quickly rebuffed. The truth is, learning a foreign language is anything but harmful. Some people, like myself, may still have questions. But no one can deny that learning a second language has many benefits on all ages and types of people. It makes you ten times more valuable to a job, friend, and society as a whole. You are losing nothing by learning a foreign language, and there is no reason not to give it a shot.

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