I was twelve years old when I started learning German, my second language, and I was sixteen years old when I studied abroad for the first time. In the summer before my junior year of high school, I traveled to southern Germany to live with a host family and attend school, and for the entirety of those weeks, I spoke only German.
During my time as an exchange student at a German high school, I noticed that all students took several hours of world language classes per day; some were enrolled in as many as four languages at once. To all of my German friends, learning and mastering English, French, and Spanish seemed to be a very high priority. When I asked why, they replied that an advanced knowledge of multiple languages would be absolutely vital if they were to achieve their goals, an idea that I, as an American, had never even considered. I had always thought that German was fun, but I had never viewed my proficiency in this language as the skill that could make or break my chances of success.
Around the world, children are taught the basics of languages and dialects from the time they first step through the doors of a school. There’s a noticeable global pattern of exposing young people to foreign languages at early ages, while in the United States, students typically don’t begin the process until middle school or high school. First comes math and reading, then science and social studies. World language is often left as an afterthought in the American education curriculum. American society has evolved to the point where we see the simple ability to communicate with people from around the world as a side skill, something that may enhance a person’s future, but never advance it. I believe that many Americans’ tendencies to treat foreign languages as nothing more than credit hours are a display of the privilege we have in this country.
Too many Americans rely on the idea that the rest of the world will “just learn English.” While it is an idea they can trust – English is the most popular, if not, one of the most popular languages to teach children in schools abroad – it is an idea they should hope to change. Education systems around the world are dedicated to the students’ success in an era of globalization, information and communication, and learning multiple foreign languages is seen as essential if young people hope to get a leg up in the economy. Having a holistic world view is valued immensely overseas, and we must begin to see the value in it in the United States if we are to maintain peaceful relationships around the globe in the years to come.
Like most Americans, my great, great grandparents were immigrants. I did not grow up in a bilingual or multicultural family. Throughout my childhood, no one told me I had to start learning a second language. I made my own decision to place a very high value on my foreign language studies when I started learning German at age twelve, but through this decision, I learned so much more about human connection, interaction, and the world in all of its stunning diversity than I ever could have by completing the minimum requirements to graduate.
In this bilateral age of both globalism and nationalism, America must start viewing foreign language education as the tool with which we can build better understanding and awareness in the world. It has the ability to open doors of compassion and tolerance between people from vastly different lifestyles. By studying second and third languages, by committing ourselves to learning about and experiencing other cultures, American individuals can express their respect for other countries and their desire to work together towards greater cultural insights and diplomatic solutions. After all, solving the world’s problems begins with communication. Changing American views on learning languages and collectively reforming foreign language education will certainly take time, but the process of reversing the current narrative begins on an individual scale by each of us making our own commitment to take language and cultural studies seriously.
Kate Greer is a first-year history and German language double major at The Ohio State University who testified to the Ohio House Education Committee on the importance of foreign language education and the implementation of a Seal of Biliteracy on high school diplomas. When she is not busy with her studies, Kate is active on campus as a member of International Affairs Scholars, the German Club at OSU, and the Undergraduate Student Government academic affairs committee and interns program. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.