November 20, 2017

Americans should learn more languages

“Ist das alles?”

The cashier looked up at me, expecting an answer. As I gave a confused stare, the gears in my head spinning as I tried to figure out what the heck she just said to me. I was in the checkout line at a local marketplace down the street from the Augarten Hotel, where I was staying. It was my second day in Austria and I was quickly learning not everyone speaks English in Austria. The United States has a problem with foreign languages and it tends to show when Americans travel to non-English speaking countries.

In an article published by Simon Fraser University, language is described as holding the intricate memory and thousands of years of a culture. If we look at the idea of language in this way, then we should respect it the way we would respect the traditional foods and customs of other cultures. If we do not try to communicate with others via their language and cultures, we can reach no real understanding.

According to the Washington Times, about 20 percent of Americans claim to speak one other language besides English in the United States, largely because of immigration. I am in the 75 to 80 percent category.

Meanwhile, more than half of the citizens of the European Union claim they can speak one other language besides their mother tongue, according to the European Commission (EC). They can also speak a second language well enough to hold a conversation.

Part of the reason for the lack of language skills in America is educational. Most Europeans start to learn another language between the ages of six and nine, according to Eurostat, the statistics branch of the EC.

Why does American education not emphasize foreign languages as much as the rest of the world?

I can guess a few reasons. English is quickly becoming the worldwide language. People who speak other languages choose English as their second language before any others. With so many people learning to speak English, Americans might not see the need to learn other languages.

We also do not have much practical use for other languages. The United States is bordered by Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south. Canada speaks mostly English, with some citizens who speak French. Mexico mostly speaks Spanish, but any chance for Americans to run into one of their citizens might soon be blocked by a giant wall. English-speaking Americans are really only surrounded by other English-speaking Americans. As long as you stay within the United States, English is enough. 

Europe is around the same size as the United States and is made up of dozens of countries. Most of them have their own cultures and languages. Europeans have a pretty high chance of coming into contact with someone who does not speak their language. All they have to do is travel the same amount of distance a Missourian going to Illinois would. Maybe this is why understanding more languages is more important in European education.

As the sovereign states of the world continue to globalize, the chances of coming into contact with people and cultures from around the world will increase. So will the need to be able to communicate effectively with others, including people who speak a different language than us.

So how does one go about learning another language?

Foreign Language classes are offered on just about every campus. Webster University offers classes in Spanish, German and Japanese among others. And apps like Google Translate, Lingo Vocabulary Trainer and busuu allow their users to translate and learn the basic vocabulary of other languages. The most difficult part for most of us is learning how to get motivated enough to start.

I am an American, born and raised. I learned to speak English at the age of two. Traveling to other countries this summer has made me want to learn different languages so I can understand the cashier when she rings out my order and asks “Is that all?” 

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