Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

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.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Ready to see the future? Nanotronics CEO Matthew Putman talks innovation and the solutions that are right under our noses.

Big Think LIVE

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

Keep reading Show less

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Keep reading Show less

Quantum particles timed as they tunnel through a solid

A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.

Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

Self-driving cars to race for $1.5 million at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ​

So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.

Illustration of cockpit of a self-driving car

Indy Autonomous Challenge
Technology & Innovation
  • The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
  • The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
  • The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

The dangers of the chemical imbalance theory of depression

A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast