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How to Improve Language Learning in the U.S.

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Learning in America

“Hey que onda wey,  queires jugar fútbol conmigo esta”… “you’re in America!

Don’t Speak that crap around me! Speak English; I don’t know if you’re talking about my momma or something!”

There is a long, awkward pause. I can see the sweat drip down the face of a young Hispanic boy. His eyelids open wide as if he is trying to find the words to lash out at the American teenager who just embarrassed him in front of every student in the cafeteria. He just wanted to ask his friend to play soccer with him this weekend. Although overlooked, it is widely believed that the people of the United States are insensitive to foreigners and the languages they bring. The truth of the matter is the U.S. lags far behind other nations in foreign language capabilities, and it is necessary that the U.S. take broad measures to increase the capabilities of present and future generations in respect to foreign language learning.

There are several benefits to learning a second language that are helpful in many ways that might not seem apparent at first. One proven benefit is that learning a second language at an early age can make you smarter. By smarter I mean cognitive development rather than simply a wider base vocabulary. According to Therese Caccavale, President of the National Network for Early Language Learning, “studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of the mind.” More research has also demonstrated that children who study a second language score higher on mathematics test even though they utilize part of their mathematics learning time to study a foreign language(Abbott).

Another benefit of learning a foreign language is understanding of other cultures. In Canada native cultures and languages are preserved through nationally funded heritage programs. Theses heritage programs emphasize the maintenance of regional and indigenous languages that would otherwise be forgotten. I personally come from a family  of Creole decent in southern Louisiana. I’m familiar with the food and music, but the culture seems so distant without the language. Many decades have past since someone in my family spoke the French Creole that made the culture complete. Without conservation programs similar to Canada the U.S. is virtually loosing its uniquely U.S. born cultures.

Also, students learning a second language at an early age will come to understand the concept of object permanence earlier (Abbott).Your legs will always will be used for walking whether they are called legs or piernas. It will be easier to understand that everyone doesn’t do things the same way, and they have a reason why they do it differently. If all this research has proven that second language acquisition yields cognitive benefits in several different areas of learning, why hasn’t the U.S. already developed a greater standard.

The problem is the lack of priority and financial incentive given to foreign language education. As the depression looms and school districts are finding ways to make ends meet, foreign language classes that are treated as electives, instead of core curriculum, are easily axed off at budget time.

The Ridgewood school district in New Jersey replaced its three elementary school Spanish teachers with the popular Rosetta Stone computer program in order to cut cost! Educators and parents both agree that children need more, not fewer, foreign language skills to compete in a global market (Hu). A computer program like Rosetta Stone, however well designed, can never address every aspect a human instructor can provide.

To this day I remember that a pupitre is a student desk because Ms. Dean’s cat used to climb on things and poop on them. She said she would quickly yell “No, that is not a poopie trey”, which sounds like the Spanish word pupitre. There is a real problem that needs to be addressed in regards to foreign language learning. The U.S. will continue to lag further behind other nations unless a well thought out plan that is structured to build upon previous knowledge up through high school graduation is financially backed by legislators, and supported by school boards and parents (Abbott).

The way to address the problem of foreign language competency in the U.S. is to learn from other countries. There are several already well thought out teaching methodologies, strategies, and policies that an benefit language teaching in the U.S. The first of these lessons we can learn is to start early. Ken Stewart, ACFTL National Language Teacher of the Year, stated that “ Absolutely every piece of research in the field[of language learning] points to the benefits of starting a second language as early as three years of age.” The average age U.S. student begins learning a second language is 14 while the average European student begins at age 8 or earlier.

So, students in the U.S. start learning a second language at an average of 6 years later than many of the other 19 countries represented in the study funded by the Center for Applied Linguistics (Pufahl). The younger a person is when trying to learn a second language the better chance they have of attaining “native pronunciation and intonation” (Abbott 1).

The second of these lessons is a national framework to base foreign language learning. With a national framework, effective teaching strategies can be shared.  One innovative teaching strategy of language learning that has shown to be successful is level based learning. Students are grouped based on their proficiency level in a language rather than their age or grade level. This way students who need more of a challenge can get the challenge they need and desire. While students who learn at a slower rate can receive the proper attention.

Foreign Language teachers should be encouraged to incorporate more technology into their learning. In the 21st century there is a plethora of information available to aid in teaching students. In a survey teachers from Canada, Denmark, and Thailand highlighted the importance of the internet and specialized database for information retrieval(Pufahl).

Also, with a national framework a strong policy can be developed to ensure students meet these higher standards. In all European countries, Canada, and Thailand, at least one foreign language must be learned with their core curriculum(Pufahl). The nationally administered assessments must test students not only on memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary, but also their uses. This must be done in order to ensure student are actually learning the language and not simply memorizing information to pass a test.

These measures are already in practice in many foreign countries and they must be implemented on as soon as possible here in the U.S. because each day that passes in another day our students fall further behind. Some of my fellow Americans are probably biting their lip when anyone suggests that the U.S. should “learn” from another country. One must remember we didn’t invent the interstate/highway system which is the backbone of our nation. We learned/took it from the Germans.

There seems to be several pros and very few cons to improving language capabilities in the United States. Making changes to mimic the best aspects of foreign language learning in other countries will lead to

  • increased cognitive development in language and mathematics
  • improved flexibility of the mind
  • increased awareness of foreign cultures
  • more competitive American workers in the global market
  • higher education standards

The only con seems to be the price tag of a policy to implement changes to our foreign education system. Congress and the American people must decide if an investment in the education of future generations is worth spending money on; or should we continue to make cuts and leave automated programs to teach or youths. Time is not on our side. Cada segundo one more person is confused. Each día of este year una persona looses a job. Cada año estamos satisfechos con lo que sabemos, estamos perdidos en lo que no sabemos.

(Each year we are satisfied with what we know, we are lost in what we don’t know)

Sources used to write this article:

Abbott, Martha Therese Cacccavale and Ken Stewart. “Cognitive Benefits of Learning Language.” The Duke University Talent Identification Program Online Newsletter Volume 8 Issue 1 Fall 2007. Dicoverlanguages.org. 13 Oct 2009 http://www.discoverlanguages.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm? pageid=4724


Hu, Winnie. “Foreign Languages Fall as Schools Look for Cuts.” New York Times 13 Sep 2009, online ed. Newyorktimes.com 13 Oct 2009 <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/education/ 13language.html>


Pufahl, Ingrid Nancy C. Rhodes, and Donna Christian. “What we can learn”. Online Resources Sep 2001


Oct 7 2009 http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/0106pufahl.html

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