Posted: Friday, December 7, 2012 2:00:04 PM
I recently attended a lecture given by the head of my university’s international business department and found myself considerably frustrated by the end. He began the PowerPoint presentation with a single question: what is the most useful language in the world? The professor calmly took in our responses before quietly changing the slide: English is in fact the most useful language in the world in terms of business and information. However, he pointed out this usefulness is solely attributed to other countries being fluent in English. Many students seemed to disagree; he changed the slide again. This one had five different phrases on it and only one was in English. The professor turned to us and asked how many of us could fully read and understand one of these sentences. All hands shot up in the air. He smirked and asked how many knew two. Half the hands dropped. The professor surveyed the remaining hands and finally inquired how many of those hands remaining were international students: almost all the hands stayed up. He finished by saying the following:
“The Americans who are not bilingual are already behind.”
While many students seemed to accept this fact and move on, I was angry. Why did not being bilingual make me behind and who was I behind?! I was so troubled I ended up interviewing several international friends where I received some surprising answers.
I asked my international friends the following four questions:
1) Are children in your country required to learn a second language in school?
2) If so, what language(s) are usually learned?
3) Approximately what grade level do children start learning this language?
4) How long do children learn this language?
The following is a summary of their responses:
Country; Required?; Additional Language; Grade; Time
Argentina; Yes English; Elementary; Until graduation
Azerbaijan; Yes; Russian; Elementary; Until graduation
Brazil; Yes; English/Spanish; Elementary; Until graduation
China; Yes; Mandarin/Cantonese/English; Elementary; Until graduation
Germany; Yes; English; Elementary; Until graduation
India; Yes; English; Elementary; Until High School
Italy; Yes; English; Middle; Until graduation
Japan; Yes; English; Elementary; Until graduation
Kyrgyzstan; Yes; Russian; Elementary; Until graduation
Libya; Yes; English; Middle; Until graduation
Mexico; Yes; English; Kindergarten; Until graduation
Philippines; Yes; English; Middle; Until graduation
Singapore; Yes; English/Native; High; Until graduation
South Korea; Yes; English; Elementary; Until graduation
Taiwan; Yes; English; Elementary; Until graduation
It’s clear that children in countries all over the globe are learning to be bilingual at a very early age, no doubt the reason why the lecture professor said American children who are not bilingual are behind. After looking further into the issue of bilingualism I found America is actually one of the few industrialized countries which does not require fluency in a second language. In fact, only ten states require a few years of foreign language in order to graduate high school, but doesn’t this make complete sense?
At the end of World War I when Great Britain’s economy was ravaged, world power shifted to America—even after World War II and with the rise of Russia, America continued to maintain its status as the global leader, particularly in the economy. Since then, the world has focused on America and every decision America makes undoubtedly influences and affects the rest of the world. This created other industrialized countries’ need to know a global power language—to know English was to know how to communicate with the leading world power, an invaluable asset. As seen in the table above, almost all countries designated English to be the required second language, and two required Russian. Even though Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan require Russian as a second language, it’s exactly the same as other countries requiring English; as far as geographical proximity and allies goes, Russia is the closest and was a large economic force that contended with America for a long time during the Cold War. Therefore, teaching Russian was highly beneficial. So if the majority of the industrialized countries are learning English, there would ideally be no need for America to learn a second language. But here is the flaw in this logic: This theory assumes that America will always be a world power. While it’s highly unlikely that America’s influence will ever decrease enough to diminish it as a world power, it’s quite realistic that other countries will rise in power and influence.
America is still currently the leading world power in terms of economy. However, three new countries have been rapidly developing and rising up: China, India, and Brazil. Of these three countries, none of them speak English as their primary language. China speaks Mandarin Chinese, India speaks Hindustani, and Brazil speaks Portuguese, all which are in the top ten most widely spoken languages in the world. It’s easy to argue and point out the table above which does indeed show that all three of these countries speak English as their secondary language, but if they are to become powerful economic powers, not everything may continue being in terms of America or English. As Dr. Ali Binazar put it in the Huffington Post, “…there's a hierarchy of how good a deal you can get from a Chinese merchant: the gringo [white person from an English speaking country] rate for those who don't speak Chinese; the rate for the foreigners who can hack a few sentences; and the rate for natives. The better your Chinese, the better the deal you'll get.” While his phrasing is a bit rough, Dr. Binazar makes his point: communication and business will go over much better if both parties can understand each other in both languages. Looking closer at language specifics, knowing a second language is incredibly useful as many things in one language don’t directly translate to the same meaning in another language. It’s already proven that people who are bilingual have a better chance at landing jobs than those who don’t meaning these bilingual international people offer much more value—the ability to communicate means more business transactions, more possibilities, and that’s priceless.
In order to ensure Americans are just as qualified as their global counterparts, it’s absolutely necessary we become a bilingual nation. America could potentially revise its current second language requirements to all of high school, but it seems establishing a solid fluency rate will need more than this. To accomplish bilingualism comparable to the rest of the bilingual countries of the world, a similar approach to other countries makes the most sense: begin teaching a second language to kids during their elementary schooling and continue learning it through high school graduation. Psychology has shown that people’s brains are most receptive to learning second languages when they are younger as their brains are still fortifying knowledge. This basically means when people are younger, a second language will be received as knowledge that is integrated into the brain versus when they’re older and a second language will be received as knowledge that is added onto the brain. To implement this into schools across America, the federal Department of Education (DE) must first view second languages as a core subject and no longer as an elective. It’s necessary for the DE to view this as their responsibility because without federal backing, it’s almost certain the current weak and diminishing format will stay in place. Therefore, the current second language criteria will need to be revised if not completely re-developed. The DE will create language proficiency/fluency standards for each grade level, and once these are established, teachers will then need to similarly follow lesson plans and exams that meet these expectations—it will hopefully be quite similar to the format of how English is taught so there will be writing, reading, and oral tests. Taking this into consideration, it’s also crucial that standardized testing also be created to assess students’ progress on a national platform. Taking cues from Singapore, American students will take a final national assessment near the completion of their senior year in high school, and upon passing, will receive a certificate validating their fluency in the second language. The idea is that this certificate will hold the same weight as a current college minor certificate in a language would hold.
The second and possibly more daunting issue that needs to be addressed before second language education can be incorporated into schools is which language do schools teach? This is a very difficult question. Geographically, Spanish is the most obvious choice to teach Americans to become fluent in. However, several American presidents have declared dreams of becoming a multi-lingual nation, so my suggestion is that the DE offers a variety of second languages to choose from. The idea behind offering several different languages is that as a multi-lingual nation, America will be producing the most versatile and internationally communicable people thus increasing America’s network and value. Students and their parents will ultimately decide which language the student will begin to learn, and these language choices will be based off the most useful and widely spoken languages around the world.
-Spanish. 350 million speakers. Spoken in America, Mexico, Spain and numerous Central and South American countries, including Brazil. Spanish is already the most popular language taken throughout American high schools and is the predominant second most spoken language in America.
-Mandarin Chinese. 880 million speakers. Spoken in China, Taiwan and Singapore. China is also the second largest economy in the world.
-MSA Arabic. 400 million speakers. Spoken in the majority of the Middle East. The Middle East controls a majority of the worlds’ energy supply, especially America’s.
-Portuguese. 200 million speakers. Spoken in Brazil and a variety of Central and South American countries/colonies. Brazil is the fourth largest world power.
-Russian. 250 million speakers. Spoken in Russia and a majority of Eastern Europe. Russia is re-establishing itself in the energy industry and emerging as a business power once more.
-German. 100 million speakers. Spoken mostly in Germany. Germany is one of if not the leader of exports in Europe making it a very powerful business power.
-Japanese. 130 million speakers. Spoken mostly in Japan. While Japanese is not as widespread as other languages, Japan is still one of the larger global powers and continues to be a leader in technology.
-French. 130 million speakers. Spoken in France, parts of Canada and the Caribbean, and in several North and West African countries. This is one of the only languages that has prevalent importance in Africa. More importantly, it is the language used for the United Nations.
I realize there will be an immediate backlash against this proposal as this appears to be a very radical change. But in retrospect, while this new system is daunting in size and demands a very rigorous enforcement to guarantee successful bilingual fluency, it ultimately means Americans will be gaining international communication skills crucial to business and global functions. Second language education currently gives Americans the opportunity to become bilingual, but a shift to the proposed organization will give Americans the advantage of being bilingual and no longer being ‘behind’ our international competitors.
Special Thanks To:
Ariel “Arr” Medilo
Binazir, Dr. Ali. The Best Languages to Learn in College. Huffington Post. 18 Sept. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
Duncan, Arne. Education and the Language Gap: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Foreign Language Summit. U.S. Department of Education. 8 Dec. 2010. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
Karlin, Anatoly. Top 10 Most Useful Languages. Anatoly Karlin. 1 May 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Keim, Dr. Gerry. Who’s #1 in the Global Market? ASU. 22 Sept. 2012.
Khordokovsky, Maria. The 10 Most Useful Languages to Learn. ALTA Language Services Inc. 27 Oct. 2008. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.