By ignoring the need for firm regulations on foreign language education programs, the United States is teaching generations of children that other languages— and the cultures they belong to— do not matter.
While many school districts across the country require students to take at least two years of foreign language in high school, there is no national requirement. In 2009, only 11 states required that students learn a foreign language.
Hawaiʻi is not one of those states. To receive a diploma from a public high school in Hawaiʻi, students have the option of replacing their foreign language requirement with fine arts or career and technical classes.
This is a stark contrast to many European countries’ education system, where studying a second foreign language is necessary in high school. In the Netherlands, it is mandatory to start learning your second language at the age of five. The United States is the only industrialized country that begins its foreign language education at the age of 14. Most other countries, such as China and France, begin at the age of 8 or 10.
Not only do foreign language programs begin at a later age in the United States, there have also been less students participating in these programs. Between the years 2009 and 2013, there was a 6.7 percent drop in higher education foreign language program enrollments. In 2014, only 5 percent of that year’s Advanced Placement tests were for foreign languages.
The major problem with this data is that, for many students in rural areas, taking a foreign language seems pointless. Advanced Placement tests may not even be available to them. In a study conducted by the Nashville Public Radio, they found that as many as 11 percent of students in Tennessee are not completing their foreign language requirement. In Scott county, 30 percent of students were allowed to replace their foreign language classes with welding classes. For many students enrolled in these schools, the certificate that comes after completion of the welding program is more valuable than learning another language.
The education system in Tennessee raises the question: is learning a foreign language only for those who can afford it? The Nashville Public Radio found that the students who are not taking foreign language classes are often the ones who are not on a college track.
Why is the United States not making the study of foreign languages available to everyone in the country? The state officials in Tennessee know about this issue and have done almost nothing to stop it. While they do not support students’ efforts to avoid learning a foreign language, officials recognize that learning skills, such as welding, will be more helpful to these students in the future. In rural places, like Scott county, the job market is limited and high school students are often expected to join the job market straight out of school.
For students who can afford the steep prices of college, there are many foreign language resources available.
“In my opinion there is a broad and diverse offering of language courses at UH,” said Rachel Mamiya Hernandez, a Spanish and Portuguese Instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, in an email interview. “I think it particularly stands out in Asian Languages and Languages of the Pacific.”
Schools like UH Mānoa offer students the chance to learn languages and about cultures that they may not have gotten the chance to discover in high school. UH Mānoa offers over 25 language courses, including Chinese, Samoan and Thai. Not only do students have the opportunity to decide what language they want to study, they also have the chance to experience it firsthand.
“Another thing that has helped encourage students is incorporating Project-based Learning in some of my classes. Last year my 201 & 202 students wrote children's books for children from a low-income community in Brazil,” Hernandez said in an email interview. “They did an online fundraiser and some of them were even able to go to Brazil to deliver the books to the community. Experiences like this allow students to see real world application of the language and reach out to international communities. ”
Even with the variety of foreign language programs at universities in the United States, most Americans can only speak English. In a publication by the National Foreign Language Center found that, “In 2005, 50 percent of Europeans over age fifteen reported that they could converse in at least one language besides their mother tongue. In contrast, 82 percent of US residents are monolingual.”
Without making foreign language education programs easily accessible to everyone in this country, the United States is creating a problem that future generations will have to fix. If we really want the United States to once again be the home of innovation, we need to start to teaching children about other cultures and the languages that define them.