Let Them Eat Cake (Qu’ils mangent de la brioche)…and Learn Foreign Languages

by Sheila Yee
Class of 2015

“L’homme qui sait deux langues en vaut deux.”

Translated from French, it states, “The man who knows two languages is worth two men.” However, few Americans today can demonstrate the validity of this statement, for fewer and fewer have the opportunity, or interest, to pursue a second language.

The vast majority of American students have fallen deep into the treacherous depths of a foreign language deficit. Many do not start learning a second language until late middle school years, or even high school. By then, it is far too late to fluidly absorb a language, for students will come to view the learning process of flashcards, quizzes, and vocabulary lists as a menial chore/labor that must be done simply for the sake of a good grade. However, grades should not be fueling our motive/desire for understanding a second language. Instead, it should be a natural instinct. In our later teenage years, there lies a lack of motivation or time to learn another tongue as students become inundated with other schoolwork deemed more important, the ever anxiety inducing college admissions, and the demanding nature of competitive sports. Too often the American education system ignores the prime adolescent years for learning a second language: early elementary school age. During that period of time, children are naturally wired to learn new words through playing with toys and friends, and their innate curiosity of the unknown. Research has proven that learning multiple languages at an early age leads to higher levels of proficiency, pronunciation, and cognitive skills. As such, why not learn English and a foreign language simultaneously?

In contrast, our European counterparts place far greater value on the acquisition of a foreign language. According to The European Commission, children are beginning to learn languages at a progressively earlier age, sometimes even around pre-school. Every single secondary school student in Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Finland learns two or more foreign languages.

In our interconnected and globalized world, we can no longer afford to ignore multilingual communities. To maintain our status as a leading nation, we must come to acknowledge language as an asset, a vital skill. If not, it will become impossible to thrive economically, and to ameliorate relations with other countries. Workers would be limited to job opportunities solely in the United States, perhaps preventing them from attaining jobs with better pay abroad.

Many generations of Americans have mistakenly adapted a pre-conceived notion that English is the only language in which they will ever need to know, that it will sufficiently fulfill all of their language requirements. Although it is true that English is the most popular studied language in non-English speaking countries, we must not grow too comfortable to believe that everyone will happily or willingly switch to English for us in a conversation. English may be one of the leading languages of the world, but it is not the main language of the world. American society cannot remain only as U.S. citizens; they must become global citizens as well.

Sheila Yee is a student in Advanced Placement Language and Composition