By Contributor Sam Husemann

Americans don’t speak many languages. It’s a fact. Only about 20% of Americans can speak two languages, let alone a third. This is a problem that must be addressed. We are behind the rest of the world in this regard, especially compared with Europe, where 19% of the population is bilingual, 25% is trilingual, and 10% speak four or more languages. 

Now, some people don’t see this as a problem. They believe that since English is a world language, others should have to learn our language, not the other way around. But this type of mindset is going to put Americans behind, especially in our globalizing world. As Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it, “for too long, Americans have relied on other countries to speak our language. But we won’t be able to do that in the increasingly complex and interconnected world.” 

Knowing another language is among “the top eight skills required of all occupations—no matter your sector or skill level—and the demand for bilingual professionals is rising exponentially,” the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages tells us. Speaking another language is a tool–providing an economic benefit–that should be taught and emphasized at the same level as history or STEM, especially with the growth of international corporations and jobs that necessitate travel to foreign countries.

Knowing another language isn’t just great for the pocketbook– your brain also reaps the benefits. Several studies have indicated that it can help postpone the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Language skills increase our cognitive longevity and help us fatten our wallets, demonstrating the enormous benefits that can come with learning another language. 

There’s also a third benefit from knowing another language: understanding other cultures. 

“The knowledge of the conventions, customs, beliefs, and systems of meaning of another country, is indisputably an integral part of foreign language learning,” says Dimitrios Thanasoulas. This is a crucial part of learning a language, in that understanding a culture requires, to an extent, knowledge of the language, and vice versa. How can one fully comprehend the Spanish word “sobremesa” when only speaking English? Fully comprehending this strong piece of Spanish culture requires an understanding of the language. The inverse is true as well; why do the Spanish say “good day” as a greeting instead of “good morning,” as in English? Again, the cultural aspect must also be understood. 

All in all, by failing to sufficiently nurture foreign languages, we Americans are setting up our youth at a disadvantage. Monolingual Americans currently are missing out on the cognitive, cultural, and financial benefits of being multilingual. So where is the United States going wrong, and how can we fix it? 

The key is the education system. Only a small minority of American elementary schools–about 15%–offer foreign language teaching, with most school districts punting it off until high school. Contrast this to Europe, where almost every country requires students to learn a foreign tongue, usually English, in their primary schools. So, why is this relevant? “Babies and very young children form neural connections at a rapid pace,” says Tori Galatro, adding that  “that’s why those who learn a language at a very young age have the accent of a native speaker.” Essentially, when foreign languages aren’t taught to students at a young age, the most crucial time in which a language can be learned is wasted, putting students at a disadvantage with learning other languages for the rest of their lives. 

Congress, if it wanted, could help our students by leveling the playing field. While some could view it as a violation of states’ rights to mandate that all states provide foreign language education in elementary schools, Congress could encourage the teaching of foreign languages through competitive grants, offering to fully fund the teaching of foreign languages in elementary schools for states that opted-in. Encouraging states to take action with competitive grants even has precedent with President Obama’s Race to the Top, wherein the Department of Education offered over 4 billion dollars in grants. Anywhere near that level of financial backing would greatly help our states improve their ability to offer other tongues. 

This would ensure that all states have the ability to improve their youths’ education in a globalized, polylingual world, hopefully increasing the percentage of multilingualism in America. In arguably the most powerful country in the world, we must ensure that our youth can build strong connections–both cultural and economic–with our international brethren and give the rising generation the competitive opportunity they deserve.