The American education system fails miserably at teaching foreign languages. Despite being a self-proclaimed cultural melting pot, foreign language classes are decreasing across the country. Americans seemingly don’t see the need to master another language, with some actively advocating against it. This disinterest in foreign language education is a form of disrespect and cultural superiority.
I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese since the third grade. I’m fortunate to have attended a K-12 private school that offered the choice between Spanish, French, Chinese, and Latin for students to study. These languages are generally reflective of the US education system. In US high schools, Spanish is most common, followed by French, Chinese, German, and Latin, respectively. At my school, the foreign language curricula were generally robust, and teachers were qualified. However, even with access to these resources, many of my peers picked up little of the Chinese language despite almost a decade of study.
Students didn’t take Chinese classes seriously. Many would joke off during class or play games. Others took advantage of some of the teachers’ limited English knowledge by making inappropriate or offensive jokes. These actions facilitated a classroom culture of disrespect, hindering the learning of other students like myself.
I never thought that this would be a shared experience. However, I learned otherwise when participating in the Middlebury Interactive Language Academy in high school. The Middlebury academies are rigorous and unique, requiring students to pledge they will only speak in the target language for the duration of their program. While participating in the academy, I quickly learned that students from Chinese language programs across the country reported the same issue: no one took their Chinese class or teachers seriously back home.
Even some who had paid to join the Middlebury program failed to take lessons seriously, erroneously broke the pledge, or made fun of cultural activities. For people like me, Middlebury was a transformative and enriching experience, but for others, it was just another line to add to their resumes. Sadly, some international components of the program have been permanently shifted online or removed entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic: another sign of decreasing foreign language education.
When visiting another country, speaking the local language is a critical sign of respect. From my time abroad, I’ve seen how others light up when someone attempts to speak the local language, especially since foreigners often assume everyone speaks English. In Beijing, where I spent my summer with Middlebury, a local shopkeeper was ecstatic to learn that my friends and I were studying Chinese. For people like her who speak no English, their businesses might be adversely affected by a decline in multilingualism as customers who don’t know Mandarin would have no way of communicating with her — one of the myriad reasons language learning is so important.
Almost 70 million Americans speak a foreign language at home, showing America is, in fact, linguistically quite diverse. Yet, for those whose first language is English, the number who speak a second language is much lower. Overall, only 13% of Americans are bilingual, whereas in Europe, over 60% of the population can speak a second language. Perhaps the US is more geographically isolated than Europe, but this deficit should also be attributed to cultural and linguistic superiority.
English is treated as the official language of the US even though it is not. Many places pressure immigrants to learn English by implementing English immersion programs and restricting access to bilingual education. The US has always been multilingual (common examples include the founding fathers and enslaved peoples), yet cultural superiority has led English to be viewed as more important than other languages.
Funding should increase for foreign language education, particularly in public primary schools. S.1453 (the Advancing International and Foreign Language Education Act) is an example of a policy that could be implemented to increase support for foreign language educational initiatives. Furthermore, higher education institutions should continue implementing policies that require students to study a foreign language. While imperfect, the Trinity language policy at Duke offers a good example for other universities, provided they have access to proper resources.
Immigration has led linguistic diversity to hit record highs in recent years, so why are foreign language classes disappearing? As diversity increases and foreign policy issues (like the US-China conflict and Russian invasion of Ukraine) remain prevalent, American society must reckon with its bias in favor of the English language and actively support foreign language education now more than ever.
Mac Hester (PPS ’24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.