Why Learning a Language Should be a Mandatory K-12 Prerequisite in the United States

Image of a globe. Pexels image of man with small globe.

Besides an interest in the subject, learning a language (or several) is a huge asset to any resume or application. Learning “in demand” languages for your career and region can help you to land a competitive position or internship. Furthermore, learning a language will better equip you with the tools to understand cultures that may differ from your own. This open-mindedness is another valuable skill to keep in mind.

It’s been argued that bilingualism, at a minimum, is a sort of “unwritten prerequisite.” The fact is that many affluent school districts, charter schools and private schools have rigorous language programs from early-on. If they don’t offer them, then many families from those schools can afford expensive external language programs. It’s becoming more common for some public high schools to have a 1 year language requirement, but without the proper resources and drive to learn- students learn an almost laughable amount of the language (certainly not enough to communicate properly). When it becomes a requirement that can encourage some students to pursue outside interests, but for many students it ends up becoming an arduous task or the worst portion of their school day. This is largely attributed to the lack of emphasis on the importance of learning a language.

Yet, in the US only 20% of students learn a foreign language. Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, in Europe, “students typically begin studying their first foreign language as a required school subject between the ages of 6 and 9. Furthermore, studying a second foreign language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries.” In some US states the proportion of students studying a language is as low as 9% (namely New Mexico, Arizona, and Arkansas). This is far from the ubiquitous language experience of other countries.

Infographic foreign languages in the United States.
https://www.leadwithlanguages.org/wp-content/uploads/MakingLanguagesOurBusiness_FullReport.pdf

In a 2016 PEW Poll, “only 36% of Americans reported that knowing a foreign language was an extremely or very important trait for workers to be successful in today’s economy, ranking it last out of eight skills for workers’ success.” This is reflected in the fact that nearly one in four Foreign Service officers do not meet the language proficiency requirements that they should meet to do their jobs.

Back in 2018 a study was released that found the following in regard to “Bilingualism Helping Low-Income Children”:

  • “This is the first study to show that, although they may face linguistic challenges, minority bilingual children from low-income families demonstrate important strengths in other cognitive domains,” says Engel de Abreu.
  • “Our study suggests that intervention programs that are based on second language teaching are a fruitful avenue for future research,” says Engel de Abreu. “Teaching a foreign language does not involve costly equipment, it widens children’s linguistic and cultural horizons, and it fosters the healthy development of executive control.”

Not convinced that languages are an important part of the job market and also personal development? Allow the following pieces of data to better encapsulate this:

  • Between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. job postings specifically geared toward bilingual candidates more than doubled (Not Lost in Translation: The Growing Importance of Foreign Language Skills in the U.S. Job Market, March 2017, p.2)
  • Studies show that decisions made in your second language are more reason-driven than those made in your native language. (Catherine Caldwell-Harris, “How Knowing a Foreign Language Can Improve Your Decisions,” Scientific American, July 3, 2012, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/foreign-language-improve-decisions/ )
  • 9 out of 10 U.S. employers rely on employees with language skills other than English.
  • There is a high demand for foreign language skills among U.S. employers (90 percent) with projections that this need will continue to grow.

Published by Magda Wojtara

Magda Wojtara is Junior at the LSA Honors College at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor on a pre-med track with a major in Neuroscience. In her free time, she write articles, volunteers at a chronic pain outpatient facility with UM Medicine, does research, competes in HOSA, and, of course, enjoys photography and singing. In her spare time she manages her own travel and lifestyle blog: @journeythedestiantion on instagram and journeythedestination.weebly.com

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