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It is very difficult to learn a second language. Part of this difficulty is that in America we begin learning that second language later in life. Language learning is not typically found at the elementary level. Instead, districts choose to begin a language course in middle or high school. I never realized how truly behind America is until I went to Europe this summer. Almost everyone spoke English. And not poor quality English; excellent English that would make you think it was that person’s first language. Except upon asking, you learn that person had never even been to England or the United States. Instead, they had taken English in school. I met a waitress that spoke four different languages, partially because of school and partially out of necessity for her job. Why is it easier for Europeans to become multilingual and much harder for Americans? There are a few parts to this answer.
The first part is because of attitude. It is assumed that everyone knows English and will learn English and why should we learn their language? I have also heard people say that since English is the official language of the United States everyone should have to learn English. You should know that nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is an official language mention and every time someone in Congress attempts to make English the official language, it never passes. There is no official language of the United States. When our immigrant forefathers came here, it was considered a detriment to speak anything but English because there was a huge emphasis on creating unity among the various colonies and new states. Often, as the generations passed, the family’s heritage language was lost. Now that attitude has evolved into the belief that English is better and no other language is needed.
The second part to the answer is that travel and exposure to different languages is not easy. Europe allows for easy travel via an extensive and affordable rail system. For an American to travel to countries that speak other languages, we often must take a plane. If you live in a large city, exposure to other languages is easier, but if you’re from a small town it can be difficult. Without the direct need to speak a language, such as necessity on vacation or interacting with tourists in your own country, you may not take the extra class or make that effort to learn another language. Or you may take classes and read books, but have no way to practice the language. Without practice and multiple exposures to the new language it is almost impossible to retain what has been learned.
The third part to this answer lies in our schools. Why have so many districts taken the middle and high school route to learning a language when research shows that this method makes language learning more difficult? The earlier a person learns a second (or third!) language, the better. Smaller children are more likely to take risks with a new language. Without those risks our vocabulary in the new language can end up being smaller than we need. Smaller children can also hear and mimic sound better than adults. This can be quite handy when learning the unique sounds we find across languages. This is also why the later in life a person moves to another country the thicker the accent. After around age thirteen, fossilization occurs in the brain. According to language acquisition research, after age thirteen it is much harder to retain the vocabulary and learn the sounds within a new language. Yet this is precisely the age range in which schools begin a language program. Studies have shown that children who speak more than one language fluently tend to do better in school. They also have an easier time learning other languages later in life.
As teachers we need to be aware of the value of having children learn new languages. If possible, we need to advocate for schools and districts to add an elementary component to the language programs. It will help students perform better in school and in life. Languages can be very helpful not only for travel but for finding jobs as well. It opens a world of opportunity to our students. It may even help us catch up to our European counterparts.