Misaligned Incentives: How America Gets Language Education Wrong
by

It was a blisteringly cold day in College Station, Texas and I wrapped my long jacket I thought I would only wear once tightly around myself as I stepped out of the orchestra hall. I was greeted by four men in military garb. This was not uncommon for Texas A&M; the Corps of Cadets was one of the largest student groups on campus, but these men looked different. They had green fatigues and forest green berets that slumped down, almost covering their right eye. Also, they were all Asian. Korean, to be specific. I gathered this because I myself had just begun to delve into the language.

They were all standing around in the freezing air, chatting amongst themselves in their native language. I caught a word here and there but not much, mentally kicking myself for not dedicating as much time to the language as I should. I considered just walking by and avoiding the embarrassment of attempting to communicate but in a burst of uncharacteristic bravery, I stepped up and introduced myself, in English. Four sets of eyes swept up to my own and I shrunk back, intimidated. There is something quite nerve wracking about meeting someone who is ridiculously adept at something you are barely a novice at. Anyone who has met an expert in their field knows this feeling.

Luckily, these men were extraordinarily gracious and excited that an American was talking to them. They responded to my greeting and introduced themselves in turn. They asked about my just-finished orchestra rehearsal and I asked them what they were in Texas for. They informed me that they were part of the South Korean ROTC and were on a month-long study abroad program sponsored by Korea. I didn’t ask much more and the conversation quickly turned to Southern food. They gushed about Texas Roadhouse (if you haven’t been, their rolls with honey cinnamon butter are to die for) and their barbecue steaks. I realized that I knew the word for beef in Korean (고기, gogi). I tentatively slipped it into the conversation, seeing if they would call me on it. They were impressed, unduly so, by my use of one word and the correct pronunciation that accompanied it.

I laughed at their disproportionate praise and jocularly asked “What, did you think Americans wouldn’t bother to learn another language?” They responded with a resounding, four-person “yes”. Although disappointed, I somewhat expected this answer. More and more students are turning away from learning a foreign language. And it makes sense. Why learn a foreign language if everyone speaks English? In addition, much of the K-12 foreign language instruction (if it’s even offered) fails to get their students to even a basic level of fluency. However, this is not the case worldwide, as evidenced by my new Korean friends. Yes, they had a bit of an accent, but their English was phenomenal. They understood me and I understood them. Conversely, I wouldn’t have a prayer if I was thrown into a conversation with a native Spanish-speaker.

I believe this is due to a difference in priorities. Americans don’t reap many benefits from learning another language, except for one notable exception: college admissions. Many of my high school peers sloughed through 3 years of Spanish simply because it would make them more marketable to prestigious colleges. There is no functional reason to learn Spanish or German in a country that insists on knowing English and only English. Even children of native speakers have started to lose their knowledge of their parents’ first language. In contrast, the international students attending Texas A&M and the Korean ROTC soldiers from abroad learned English like their lives depended on it. They probably did.

How can we remedy this crisis of losing beautiful languages like Korean, Arabic, and Polish in America? Firstly, the K-12 foreign language education needs to be expanded to include new languages. Even at my comparatively well-funded and well-staffed high school, the only languages available were Spanish, French, German, and Japanese. Most schools don’t even have those options. Also, while French and German are beautiful languages, far more people speak Arabic and Chinese. Around 275 million speak French and 90-95 million speak German (as a first language). These numbers are nothing to scoff at, until you compare them to the 420 million Arabic-speakers and the 1.2 billion Chinese-speakers. The fact that these languages are less taught in schools than French is a crime.

Additionally, foreign language funding has been routinely cut by the federal government. The folks in Washington weigh their options: Is learning a language more beneficial than another social studies class? I’d say yes, if taught correctly. At the end of my Spanish education in school, I can’t say I know much more about the Hispanic world except that Día de los Muertos is a holiday that happens…sometime during the year.

However, with my own personal project of learning Korean, I have delved into their music, their customs and rituals, and most importantly, their mores. Learning a language is, in my opinion, the best way to understand a culture and to create understanding and tolerance between people. By not emphasizing the importance of learning a second language, we could lose the diversity that makes America great.

This loss of diversity is in no small part due to children of immigrants dropping their parents’ language in favor of English. While English is necessary to succeed in America, this does not have to come with a loss of the parent culture. We should never forget where we came from, even if one identifies more with American ways. 

With an increase in funding, more language options, and a revamp of the way languages are taught, education could make a big leap in giving young Americans a skill that not only looks good on a résumé, but also makes them a more understanding, global individual – something the United States sorely needs.

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