Column: U.S. foreign language education must improve

I have heard the same joke repeated all over the world: “Someone who knows three languages is multilingual, someone who knows two languages is bilingual and someone who knows one language is American.” Only 18% of Americans can speak a foreign language, compared to over half of Europeans. Foreign language education is vital to succeeding in a globalizing world, but the American education system fails to prioritize foreign language learning.

While students in other countries may begin learning a second language as young as three, most Americans have to wait until high school. Waiting is not the issue, as it is indeed never too late to learn a foreign language. Instead, the problem lies in the quality of language education. Of the small percentage of Americans that do know a foreign language, only seven percent learned it in school. The rest speak the second language at home.  

In a world with instant translators and Google, learning another language may feel like meaningless fluff for college applications. However, one must go no further than this Youtube video to see the dangers of relying solely on Google translate. Anyone who has studied a second language knows that online translations are no substitute for genuine learning, not to mention the awkwardness of turning to your cell phone every time someone asks you a question.

While I am not fluent in Chinese, knowing even the basics completely changed the way I was treated while I was in Asia. Though many of the people I encountered spoke English, my questions were received noticeably better if I attempted to ask in Chinese first. Expecting that everyone in the world can speak English is both rude and irrational.

English may be the most studied foreign language in the world, but it is only the third most spoken, and just because someone is learning it does not mean they are fluent. Perhaps even more important than the academic advantages to foreign language learning is the sympathy that the learner is able to extend to those attempting to speak English in America, since they too have experienced the struggle.

As more high schools remove foreign language programs due to budget cuts, colleges must pick up the slack. The two semesters that USC requires are not enough to even remotely learn and maintain a second language. However, needing more courses will only add to the bill of an already overpriced college education. A better option would be to add one-credit language courses to allow students to actually maintain skills. Even with a full work and class schedule, I have taken one credit gym courses every semester of college with ease.  

Some of my closest friends speak English as a second language, and I realize that if they had not taken the time to learn it, our friendship would be impossible. Understanding the value of foreign language education is the first step to securing its presence in schools and colleges. Four years of Spanish means nothing if it is not maintained properly.

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