Language learning has been consistently viewed as a tenuous and unproductive task in America, but this hasn’t always been the case; let me first clarify that I am merely attempting to shed some light on this topic and not write an academic response (this has already been done by others). As a matter of “patriotism,” foreign languages were significantly oppressed in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. Reports have been released that claim bilingualism leads to cognitive impairment. For instance, Nebraska passed a law in 1919 banning the teaching of subjects in any languages except English and that foreign languages could only be taught after graduation from the eighth grade; at the time, German was the second most widely spoken language in the US as a result of a significant immigrant population dating back to colonial times.
This has been detrimental to language learning within the US ever since. This is unfortunate for many reasons, but today especially because of globalization and the need to communicate with people from various cultures.
My personal journey with language has been rather spotty. As far as I remember I have always wanted to learn German; this is largely due to family heritage (and whether or not it is realized, I share this with a significant proportion of Americans). My family didn’t have the resources, connections, or awareness to do anything about this, so I didn’t learn German. It wasn’t until I had reached middle school that I was able to learn any foreign language and since German wasn’t available in my school district it was French. My personal opinion is that the greatest influence to success in learning is a passion for the subject matter and for me that would have been present with German. I studied French for five years and really couldn’t do much in the way of communicating beyond basic reading comprehension. It wasn’t until several years after high school that I took the initiative to learn German and I didn’t have much success for some time.
European practices related to language learning often are much more demanding. For instance, in Ireland, English and Irish (Gaelic) are both taught as native languages. In Germany, English is taught when children begin school and additional foreign languages must be learned beginning in their equivalents of fifth grade and high school. This is no guarantee of fluency, but familiarity is also great.
Much of the focus in K12 education has centered around the lack of funds available; this need not be an impediment and its validity is a subject for other discussions. Teachers do not need to be experts in the languages being taught, but they need tools that assist. I often advocated the use of Rosetta Stone in a situation like this as students can progress and learn without significant attention from their teachers and small focus sessions could be held weekly with student-teachers that major in the requisite languages. I now have shifted my focus to other tools, like DuoLingo and Anki.
To further set the stage, I offer a personal anecdote that suggests that a single foreign language may not be enough:
In 2013, I enrolled in a German course at my alma mater for personal enrichment (I truly appreciate the benefit that is offered to alumni to audit courses for no cost, thanks University of Indianapolis). Driving near my home, I saw a German flag at a local business that turned out to be a subsidiary of Volkswagen and decided I would inquire about establishing a relationship with my alma mater for interns from the Modern Languages department. The individual that I encountered indicated that they didn’t really have a direct need for German but could certainly benefit from help with Chinese and German. This makes a lot of sense as the parent company is German but many partners in the automotive industry are located in China.
Please join me in advocating language learning. It is vital to our economy and global standing, reinforces our understanding of our native language, and opens our minds to foreign cultures.