U.S. students lag far behind rest of the world in learning a second language. Here's why that matters.

Throughout Europe, 92 percent of children speak multiple languages. In America, that number is 20 percent.

U.S. students lag far behind rest of the world in learning a second language. Here's why that matters.
Photo: powerofforever / Getty Images

If you live in the German-speaking Community of Belgium, one of the nation’s three federal communities, you most likely speak multiple languages. Though the local dialect is German, three-year-olds are required to study a foreign language. As it turns out, this is the easiest time during human development to grasp multiple dialects, given the plasticity of the brain. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes.


Most European countries require that their students speak foreign languages. At what age they start learning is another story, though for most of Europe, knowing at least two other languages is compulsory. Only Ireland (save Northern Ireland) and Scotland escape this fate, but even there you’ll hear many tongues spoken by every citizen:

Ireland and Scotland are two exceptions that do not have compulsory language requirements, but Irish students learn both English and Gaelic (neither is considered a foreign language); Scottish schools are still obligated to offer at least one foreign-language option to all students ages 10-18.

Then you have America, a nation in which less than half of citizens own a passport. This number, thankfully, has risen to 42 percent from 27 percent since 2007, but data still hint at a majority disinterested in international travel. A new Pew Research poll shows that most American states have less than one-quarter of students studying a foreign language.

That’s because learning a foreign language is not nationally mandated. The state with the most students enrolled—New Jersey has 51 percent—happens to be where I grew up. In high school, you either took Spanish, German, or French; looking back, I thought it was required everywhere. Not the case, at least broadly—school districts (and even states) can require language studies, but the U.S. Department of Education has no broad requirements.

Which is in stark contrast to Europe. In France, Romania, Austria, Norway, Malta, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein, every student must learn another language. The country with the least amount of students enrolled is actually Belgium, with 64 percent, just behind Portugal (69 percent) and the Netherlands (70 percent). Overall, 92 percent of European students know multiple languages. In America, that number is 20 percent.

It also depends on which state you’re discussing. In New Mexico, Arizona, and Arkansas, only 9 percent of students study a language other than English, an especially disturbing fact given that two are border states that benefit greatly from communicating with their neighbors.
The numbers don’t get much better as we investigate older demographics. Only 36 percent of Americans believe speaking another language is “extremely or very important” in the modern workplace. Strangely, most Americans realize that further training is required to stay competitive in the market:

The vast majority of U.S. workers say that new skills and training may hold the key to their future job success.

Americans spend so much time focused on bringing jobs “back,” yet we actually have no clue where they “go.” It’s impossible to compete in a global workforce if you refuse to educate yourself on anywhere beyond your neighborhood. Eight in ten Americans believe outsourcing is a serious problem and seven in ten claims that responsibility is on the individual, yet just over one-third consider that preparation should include learning another language.

Considering English is the most studied language across Europe, it’s not surprising American citizens are lazy. We can communicate almost anywhere we travel, our privileged reality. During my four trips to Morocco, I was often approached in French; upon learning I’m American, the speaker immediately switched to English. This is beside the native Moroccan Arabic. Many citizens also know Spanish and Italian.

One can argue that their economy depends on it. English is, after all, the business language of the world. Beyond staying competitive in the marketplace, however, there are many personal benefits. Early language learning increases cognitive benefits and helps fight diseases of dementia. Being multilingual has positive effects on memory, problem-solving, verbal and spatial abilities, and intelligence. These are all important skillsets in business. They also make you a healthier citizen, physically and socially.

Still, many Americans don’t recognize the value of curiosity. Instead of bristling when hearing people communicate in a language they don’t understand, they can attempt to make sense of it. Instead, we’re constantly confronted with videos of Americans demanding that immigrants “learn to speak the language.” Complacency usurps curiosity—and common sense.

Within the English language, the more words you know, the broader the population you can dialogue with. That extends exponentially when you know multiple languages. Why we wouldn’t want to talk to as many people as possible sheds light on rampant nationalism, which is a shame. The larger one’s vocabulary, the more likely we’ll get along, in business and in life. Everyone’s health improves.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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