American schools should prioritize bilingualism

By Emmy Liederman
Opinions Editor

In elementary school, I remember struggling to learn my times tables and memorize the names of state capitals. I spent first grade in Hoboken, New Jersey where Spanish was the first language of most of my peers. I listened to my friends speak effortlessly to their parents, and wondered if I would ever be able to understand.

Young children benefit from studying foreign languages. (Twitter)

When I moved to a predominantly white suburb, a Spanish teacher visited my class once every two weeks and taught us the names of a few fruits and colors in Spanish. The American education system prioritizes the memorization of state capitals, but being able to communicate with our neighbors becomes an afterthought.

The U.S. has no official language, so is the study of French and Spanish really the study of foreign languages? To reside in the “melting pot of America,” shouldn’t bilingualism, or trilingualism, be required?

In order to graduate from my high school, students were required to complete only two years of foreign language classes. According to Pew Research Center, students in European countries study their first language before the age of nine, and in more than 20 European countries, studying a second language is mandatory.

For a country that is supposedly a world leader in diversity and tolerance, this doesn’t seem to make much sense. By refusing to enforce biliteracy, we are not only neglecting the ideals of our nation, but also putting ourselves at a personal disadvantage.

Learning a second or third language improves our ability to speak our first language. A foreign tongue enhances our vocabulary, listening skills and memory, which is a clear investment for success in all fields of study, according to Auburn University.

Despite the lack of a nationwide foreign language mandate at any educational level, four out of five jobs in the U.S. are created as a result or foreign trade, and the ability to speak multiple languages is a huge skillset in the global economy, according to Pew Research Center.

The lack of required language classes should not prevent students from taking advantage of a major personal investment. We must teach young kids new languages at a rigorous level — high school is far too late for beginner French.

Those who oppose a foreign language mandate argue that they distract from the core curriculum — classes like math, English and history. I would ask those people to think about the following scenario: a child is sitting in his social studies class next to a new student from Venezuela, who is putting in his very best effort to understand the teacher’s fast-paced lecture. The students are introduced to the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson’s famous words, “all men are created equal.”

But if one kid is breezing through the lesson and the other is struggling, don’t we owe it to Jefferson to help that kid out and learn some Spanish? By instilling a foreign language mandate, we are dispelling ethnocentrism, embracing diversity and making the kid next to us feel that much more comfortable.

The U.S. I know is one that welcomes all people with open arms and builds bridges toward diversity, not walls toward uniformity. Maybe if we start emphasizing the importance of learning foreign languages, we will realize that even if someone is different, they deserve the same opportunities. Maybe if our students are taught that value exists outside of their native language, they will realize that this nation, and the opportunities that it holds, is made to be shared with others.

Students share opinions around campus

“Should foreign language classes be mandatory for all students?”

Kelly Vincent, a sophomore special education and English double major. (Emmy Liederman / Opinions Editor)

“I was upset when I learned I didn’t have to take a language. Students should be well-rounded.”

Nic Stoltzfus, a freshman biology major. (Emmy Liederman / Opinions Editor)

“It’s not fair biology majors need to take three levels and other majors don’t need any.”