Here’s an interesting thought: taking classes in the world’s most widely used and dominant language might actually be a detriment. Just 20% of Americans from kindergarten to the 2nd grade take a foreign language course, compared to a whopping 92% in Europe, which might put young Americans at a disadvantage, both directly and indirectly.
Legislation is a major aspect
Aside from offering the direct benefit of being able to communicate with more people, learning a foreign language is associated with a wide variety of intellectual and health benefits. Bilingual kids tend to be smarter, scoring higher in cognitive tests, and bilingual brains also tend to be healthier and stave off age-related decline.
At a first glance, the reason for the difference between the US and Europe seems pretty obvious — Americans speak English and so most of them feel like they just don’t need to learn another language. But in Europe, things couldn’t be more different. Eight countries in Europe have 100% of students study at least a foreign language, and for almost all of them, the rate is above 80%.
But when you start to go a bit deeper, a systemic difference becomes apparent — and it’s a lot about how the educational process is designed and legislated.
European students typically start learning their first foreign language between 6 and 9, and furthermore, learning a second foreign language is compulsory in more than 20 European countries. Overall, 92% of students study at least one foreign language in Europe — vastly different from the US.
For starters, learning foreign languages are typically mandated by law in Europe, whereas in the US, each state makes its own regulation. Overall, the vast majority of US states have less than 25% participation, with only 9% of students studying a foreign language in New Mexico, Arizona and Arkansas.
UK and Ireland
The Pew report doesn’t include the UK and Ireland, for which it did not have satisfying data. However, this also draws an interesting comparison — after all, the native language in both countries is English, as is also within the US, so perhaps this would be a more apt comparison.
Well, the UK definitely lags behind the rest of Europe in terms of foreign language, and the Brits are notorious on the continent for their lack of foreign language skills. However, 38% of Britons speak at least one foreign language. In England and Scotland, primary school pupils are generally expected to learn a foreign language, though that is not always the case in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Regarding Ireland, in addition to English, all pupils at primary level study Irish. However, Irish is not considered a foreign language.
This has a lot to do with what skills are required to get a job. In Europe, a foreign language is considered essential for many qualified jobs, while in the US that’s hardly the case. But that’s not the only reason. Europe tends to be much more culturally diverse, even between the borders of one country. In Switzerland, for instance, there are 4 official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), while in Belgium, which reports one of the lowest overall percentages of students learning another language, there are three official languages: French, German, and Dutch. Since Belgians are very divided on the matter of what languages should be spoken within the country, English has become the country’s best apolitical linguistic option, as Quartz’s Nikhil Sonnad recently noted.
Europeans also share more borders with other countries, and it’s very easy to travel from country to country, at least within the EU — you can do so only with your ID and nothing more, and you don’t need a visa.
Lastly, on top of it all, there’s still the practical necessity. With English, you can probably get around in most parts of the world, so there’s not much incentive to brush up on your French. But if you’re from the Netherlands, the odds are you may need to know a language other than Dutch at some point.
American kids don’t feel as pressured to learn another tongue, but while they may easily find work and get around using only English, they might be missing out on developing cultural intelligence, which is increasingly important in modern times.