Why most Americans only speak English

Gregg Roberts is the World Languages and Dual Immersion Specialist,
 Utah State Office of Education.  I am wondering if LDS missions 
and foreign language emphasis don't connect together.

In doing a workshop, I recently learned pretty much everyone who has ever gone to school in the U.S. has been in a foreign language class at some point*.

Chances are though, they don’t speak most anything but English (to fluency).  But the experience sits in their head and if asked, they probably have some opinion about the experience.  Most people go into it kind of excited, and then that goes away, and they are left with anything from remorse, discomfort, irritation or commentary that they aren’t language learners.  But most everyone has an experience.  What is your experience?

There is always a bureaucratic concern for improving our educational system.  That is why we now have standardized tests.  There is an irony though, that students often have to sit through 2 years of foreign language education, and the majority of them never become speakers of that language.

Doesn’t this seem like a huge waste of everyone’s time and resources?  What is the point?

College-bound students in the U.S. sit in class for 2 years taking tests, completing homework, practicing and preparing, often just to walk away after the spending 2 years studying a foreign language. Why are we doing this?

For younger students, the need for a foreign language can feel remote, not of central importance like STEM (science technology engineering and math) curriculum. Because of geography, we are separated physically from most foreign languages (except Spanish in many places). For many youth, there certainly is no immediate need (that they are aware of), beyond what a faraway college admissions officer has dictated. If the desire isn’t there, and necessity isn’t there, students spend a couple years fulfilling a requirement without a genuine intent to ever become get to mastery.  Students are told:

Did you know that studying a second language can improve your skills and grades in math and English and can improve entrance exam scores — SATs, ACTs, GREs, MCATs, and LSATs? Research has shown that math and verbal SAT scores climb higher with each additional year of foreign language study, which means that the longer you study a foreign language, the stronger your skills become to succeed in school. Studying a foreign language can improve your analytic and interpretive capacities. And three years of language study on your record will catch the eye of anyone reading your job or college application.

taken from Go Cougs.

It is a little puzzling why it is never mentioned that bilingual students can travel to different places and actually speak to natives of another country.  It is because they are not interested in fluency, only exposure (Three years is exposure, it takes approx. seven years to learn a language to relative fluency).  They want students to have exposure, awareness that there are other languages out there.  So that you can improve your test scores.


I wonder why we spend years only exposing people to a foreign language rather than teaching to fluency, making the subject seem really quite useless, more like a study tool.

I have trained to be a foreign language teacher for what seems like forever (20 years). I didn’t come to it by accident. All my professional experience has gone towards making me a better foreign language teacher, whether ESL or Spanish. I picked this area mostly because French in high school was easy for me, and it lit up my imagination of possibilities for my life.  I am not linguistically gifted, I have met those that are, and I don’t get to be in their club, I have had to work to learn particularly Spanish and before that Russian.

The thing I have just recently figured out is how many ways there is a low-level communication that foreign language knowledge isn’t really that important to what is at hand at the end of the public education system:  making money.

Personally,  in the past couple years I realized that teaching verbs and stuff was nowhere nearly as interesting to me as equipping students to leave the U.S. in order to get the education that is in travel. Not so much the tour bus travel, as the integrated experience of living with a family or working in another country going to school or having other goals that included daily interaction in the language and culture. To me, it seemed that if more Americans went somewhere else and saw how it was outside their home country, that education would be worth more on a personal human level than years in a classroom. And beyond that, people would see the world differently and as Americans, we might change a little bit. Education is that powerful.

http://shelbylindblad.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/go-abroad.jpgBecoming a foreign language teacher was about as close as I have managed to get to impressing that upon young people.

But I have just stepped away from teaching, and I have something to say about why most Americans only really speak 1 language.

I know 2 types of language learners (and maybe more, but from a bird eye view, these 2 can start):

  • people who are in foreign language classrooms as students (usually) in middle school/high school or college, and
  • adults who wished they had paid attention in their foreign language classes in high school or college.

Young American Foreign Language Learners

Within the high school classroom, the odds can be against students from the beginning.

First, for too many, their first experience with a foreign language is when they are 14 years old (9th grade). It is a late time to start, and while it is never too late to learn a foreign language, it is a terrible time to put a person into the uncomfortable place of not being able to express themselves well. Fourteen-year olds are already often uncomfortable in their own skin, they are underclassmen, they are on the brink of the most significant neurological changes since they were 2-years old and socially they are often very conscientious of appearing foolish/making mistakes. Learning a foreign language is nothing if not a collection of making a lot of mistakes. It might not be the best time to start a foreign language.

https://i0.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02244/Foreign_2244041b.jpgSecond, foreign language is a requirement for college. This makes foreign language look then like something that is reserved for “academic” students. This foreign language requirement for college makes people often times take the next logical leap of allying foreign language knowledge with high academics.  And then they sometimes identify themselves as lacking the facility to learn another language.

In other parts of the world, however, people of all socioeconomic classes and education levels are speaking more than one language, mainly because they have to. Learning another language boils down to access + necessity or strong desire to learn another language, not intelligence.

Can’t learn a foreign language? Not true, say scientistsThat last point brings me to third, some people here in the US will really honestly believe with all their hearts that they can only learn one language.  Research has bore out that (Chomsky) that if you can learn one language, you can learn another. The rest of the world bears this out too, as most of the rest of the world speaks more than one language (Grosjean, Francoise).

Fourth, in order to have any connection whatsoever or understand the importance of why a foreign language is important, the student really, really has to go somewhere where they are speaking the target language (remember access + necessity or strong desire).  For Americans, this is really expensive.  Many give up before they begin.  There are so many other exciting things in high school to do.  Without this fire under them though, of having met the other culture and realizing, “Wow, they look a lot like us, and in fact I really like this, this and this about that place…” young people will have no touch with the reality of why there is a college admissions officer somewhere sitting in his office considering making 3 years foreign language mandatory, rather than 2.

https://i0.wp.com/learnenglishteens.britishcouncil.org/sites/teens/files/styles/article/public/istock_000020473404small.jpgFinally, kids in foreign language classrooms have somewhere between a remote idea and no idea why it might be important to know more than one language (outside of the college requirement). Much of what they are told exists up in the sphere of “because maybe you might find yourself wishing…” but they haven’t had daily scenarios where they had to speak another language.  There are no mandatory standardized tests in public schools for foreign language ability, and so the importance of foreign language learning appears fuzzier and fuzzier.  There is no access, and there is no necessity (outside of a college requirement) to learn a foreign language. And the other stuff, the CORE subjects, the ones that receive rigorous testing send a strong message of what is important.

Adult Foreign Language Learners

The second group of learners, the adult learners, have a much better chance at learning a foreign language. They seem to know that they want to and why, which younger students lack.  They have the maturity and often the perseverance to get to proficiency, if the motivation comes with them.


Other Factors at Play

The fact that English is currently a global language doesn’t offer much good news with regards to Americans learning a foreign language.  Most only travel to the places where English is spoken or at least accessible.  It is kind of a disservice though ultimately, as English speakers are then to some extent rewarded for their lack of knowing something that as citizens of one of the wealthiest nations, one might think we would know.

I thought this fellow was funny, and for a whole lot of people, they can relate to what he is saying.  Taken from the “Library of Economics and Liberty”

I have seldom heard raves about foreign language teachers.  English teachers, yes, science teachers, yes, but seldom about foreign language teachers.  There are opportunities for problems all over with hiring/training/assessing foreign language teachers.  Oftentimes administrators don’t have a way to assess the skills of their candidates, and I have heard enough stories about assuming that any native speaker can teach.  I know also that sometimes the right skin color is all it takes, and even if one’s first language is Portuguese, well, that’s kind of like Spanish, right?  Such is the reality of administration and hiring of foreign language speakers.  So the ability of the teacher can be a factor as well.

Decision makers seem to have decided

What does our educational system wants for students to learn?  Bilingualism?  Is that important?  I am guessing that would be controversial, but the point is sound.   In K-12, the goal, more often than not is college.  For colleges, the goal seems to be exposure.  Is exposure to the existence of foreign languages as a study tool worth 2 to 3 years of seat time, and no mastery?  According to WSU, the reason to study another language for 3 years is only to improve test scores and to put it on a resume.  I ask myself what employer would care if a potential employee studied a language but cannot actually use it?

Am I the only one to who suspects this might not be very well thought out?

I guess I am not the only one…

Jessica Stillman, CBS, discussing how educating children monolingually is to make them less competitive.

The New York Times:  “The World Has Changed” discusses the peril of relying on America the superpower to justify monolingualism.

Monolingual Americans:  Why We can’t Learn Foreign Languages is a book written by a guy asking these same questions.

It seems to me that America is an amazing place where we aim for excellence in all things.  Science, Math, English, we aim high and we encourage youth to aim high as well.  So America’s relationship with foreign languages and other countries confounds me a little.  It would seem that not enough thought has been given to these things to come to a real understanding of what “best practices” are with regards to language learning.  http://allthingslearning.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/bilingual-02-cartoon.gif

And I suppose this comic is a little jibe from the ESL side of it.

What is your foreign language learning story?  How did it look and feel for you?  Did you end up learning to mastery?  Why did you quit?  I am interested, leave a note!

* (for some Latinos, all the classes are foreign language classrooms, so I am mostly referring to “Heritage” English speakers).

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