Imagine this: on December 21, 2012, we will face the extinction of… all languages except English.
What, not the apocalyptic end you were expecting? True, no bombs, no erupting volcanoes,no flesh-eating zombies, but a world where only the English language exists? If this ling-pocalypse were to happen, here’s what my day would sound like. First, as I run out the door to school, underestimating the difficulty of a math test I would take, my mom would warn me, “Elizabeth, stop licking the watermelon.” Then, in German class where we’re required to memorize one hundred words a night, our teacher would advise us to “build yourself a donkey bridge.” These phrases sound ridiculous! And it’s not because my German teacher doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she advises me to build a donkey bridge. Rather it’s because these traditional sayings are directly translated into English, and so they lose all meaning.
Now I realize that we still live among a wide variety of languages here in the United States, but in comparison to our French friends, where average high schools require students to learn 2-4 languages starting from primary school, American schools, only requiring 1-2 languages, are leading us ever closer to that apocalypse, and to more watermelon licking. Therefore, because of the lack of foreign language requirements, Americans will not be able to maintain their power status in the ever integrating globalized world. So, to avoid this ling-pocalypse, we must first dig through the heavy debris for the main cause of this problem. Second, we will scavenge the piles of ashes for the impacts of this dangerous route, and finally, amongst the radioactive rubble, we will try to salvage a solution. When it comes to foreign language requirements, it’s not a surprise that America falls quite short of its peers.
For example, according to an article from the Smithsonian magazine published in 2011 , in Finland, the average student will complete high school speaking four languages: Finnish, English, Swedish, and either German, French or Russian. That’s 3 more than what an average American high school student will learn. In addition, the State Board of Education in Illinois, only requires 1 year from a choice of a foreign language and art classes to graduate. Unfortunately, this statistic consistently blankets the nation. Furthermore, recently, due to sparse funding for education and increased drop out rates, the first classes to go are foreign languages. According to a 2011 article by Mercurynews, because of California’s high drop out rate of 18%, a new law was created, stating that instead of adding another class, a class in career education would substitute a class in foreign languages.
Such a decision would have been unthinkable in the 1960s where, according to John Stilgroe of the Harvard Crimson, colleges assumed secondary-school seniors had completed at least 4 years, if not 6 years of foreign language study. However, along with the flamboyance of the 60s, foreign language requirements have also become bygone memories. Accordingly, some may ask, since we live in America and English is the dominant language, why it is so necessary to learn other languages? It’s for that very reason, that we live in America, that foreign languages are so significant. By not learning foreign languages, Americans ignore not only a big part of the population, but also the cultural richness that these people provide. Growing up in a Korean family and being born in America, I’ve been subjected to two very different cultures from “Were you really born in America?” to “ching chong ching lang ling lang” imitations.
There were times that I wanted to stop learning the Korean language altogether, not realizing that by giving up the language I would also lose access to my Korean heritage. I would lose my wise grandma telling me, “??????? ??? ???” meaning “Don’t always worry about being the best because there’s always first place.” I hear those words in my head when I have to remind myself to be passionate about the things I’m doing versus focusing on the materialistic reward. Now I realize that, everyone might not have a grandmother who speaks another language, but engaging in simple communication with someone else from a completely different culture can develop insight that is necessary to our globalized world. It is the lack of opportunities to learn languages, according to an article entitled “America’s Ignorance of the world is now a national liability” from Amerispan in 2003, that builds up ignorance and distances Americans further away from the rest of the world.
In our economically bustling society, this separation could be a death knell. As an article of the Huffington Post in 2011 states, our ability to compete in a global market depends entirely on our knowledge of other languages and cultures. Additionally, nearly 30% of large American corporations believe that they aren’t able to fully exploit their international businesses due to their lack of international skills. If that’s not enough to prevent Americans from saying, “Stop licking watermelons”, a study conducted by the Guardian in February of 2011 explains that increasing our foreign language proficiency could increase our brain power and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, being bilingual could keep Alzheimer’s at bay for another 4 years, through increasing cognitive skills and decreasing dementia. That’s only the long term benefit, learning more languages has also proved to increase students’ abilities at prioritizing information and multitasking.
Better cultural awareness, health, business, and brain power? Yes please. So what do we do from here? Continue to build donkey bridges? Michigan area schools don’t seem to think so, according to an article from the Herald in 2011, the State Board of Education in Michigan has taken the first step to solving the problem; increasing the language requirements. The board of education has stated the language requirement for high school students is actually being required of the middle school students. This in turn, prepares them for a better future. Better yet, make the choice of taking foreign languages whether you’re 7 or 50, there’s nothing to lose. And if your school doesn’t offer foreign languages share with the principal or even the state board of education, the enthusiasm to learn languages.
If enough people express their desires to learn foreign languages this collaborative effort would keep us from building donkey bridges in the future. By creating these opportunities or making them, we may just narrowly miss those flesh-eating zombies dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in unison. Take a look around, even within a single classroom, diversity is teeming. Why not take advantage of its potential? Everyone can benefit in someway by learning foreign languages, whether through better performance, better health, better communication skills, or simply better dating potential. With a lack of foreign language requirements, students in America are less prepared to deal with the globalized world.
It is for that reason that we must do whatever we can to increase the standards of foreign language requirements in schools. If nothing else, it’ll keep my Greek friend’s mother from saying things like, “What do you want me to do? Smell my nails?”