Foreign language education in the U.S. must be better

03/15/2018

By Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor 

If I had a dollar for how many times I’ve heard students here on the Bluff complaining about required foreign language classes, I’d be able to pay my Starbucks tab through finals (and I drink a lot of coffee).

Seriously, what is it with Duquesne students and the deeply ingrained, passionate resentment of the world language department? The professors are great, the books don’t break the bank and you might just learn a cool new skill. Yet, if any set of courses earns more eyerolls and heavy sighs than foreign language, I’ve yet to encounter it. Why?

In truth, the answer might be deeper than Duquesne and 9 a.m. lectures.

The issue, I fear, is American.

In the United States, only an estimated 26 percent of the population can speak more than one language. In Europe, an estimated 54 percent can speak one language other  than their native tongue, 25 percent can speak two additional languages and 10 percent can communicate in three additional languages, according to The Guardian.

With monolingualism set as the norm and standard, the United States is falling behind on the world stage.

There are proven benefits of a bilingual education, including improved memory, stronger adaptive capabilities and a more globalized worldview overall. But with only an estimated 15 percent of American public elementary schools offering programs in languages other than English to small children, fears rise over the concern that by the time students are exposed to a modern language program, they’re either too old or too busy to achieve proficiency, let alone fluency.

Some researchers claim that the critical window for learning a second (or third) language closes by the time a child completes elementary school, and after that, becoming conversational in a nonnative tongue becomes even more challenging.

It isn’t all the students’ fault. Statistics from the American Academy show that 44 states, as well as Washington, D.C., don’t have enough qualified educators to meet current teaching needs. There’s also something unfair about the way required courses are delegated, even at the university level.

Yes, Duquesne’s liberal arts students need four semesters of a foreign language, but they also need math and science, while a math or science major enrolled outside of McAnulty barely needs any English courses, let alone any sort of formal foreign language education.

The idea exists that foreign language is not as useful a skill as proficiency in calculus or an understanding of biology, anatomy or physics. It’s much more taboo to flunk Problem Solving with Creative Mathematics than it is to fail Spanish 101, and for some reason, foreign language is one of the first things to go when the budget gets tight.

Don’t get me wrong; math and science are important. But no one is out there claiming it’s a waste of time to teach a fourth grader their times tables. The same can’t be said for foreign languages, though. In a country that’s rather fond of tooting its own English-speaking horn, folks often push world languages off to the side while science fairs and computer science endeavors flourish.

If America really is the greatest country in the world, why are we illiterate in comparison to our European counterparts? America leads the world in terms of incarceration rates, obesity statistics,military spending, student loan debts and national deficit. It’s time we step up as a nation and become leaders in something productive.

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