6,909. That is the estimated number of languages spoken by people throughout the world. Of the 15 most populated countries (China, India, U.S., Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia, México, Japan, Ethiopia, Philippines, Egypt, and Vietnam), none share a common most-spoken language (some share "Official languages") despite the fact that some are in close, geographic proximity to each other.
This is a beautiful fact about the human experience; a community of people come together and, through time, develop a shared and agreed-upon set of linguistic rules for how they will communicate with each other. Each group comes up with their own system that helps shape their individual and collective identities.
However, with the ever-increasing interconnectedness of modern society, that communal blessing has steadily evolved into a curse in disguise. A nuanced conversation where everything is clearly and effectively communicated is extremely difficult when the participants of a conversation do not speak the same language and are not at all familiar with each other's language; people find themselves in this type of situation more often with how much we get to interact with others from different backgrounds compared to the past. Some may think that this is being solved by English becoming the de facto language of the world, but in fact, it is actually the second-most spoken language in the world (Mandarin is first) with many from other countries not being able to speak it fluently. The result is that bilingualism/multilingualism has become an indispensable skill for people to have.
The way that many have suggested we can best give people these needed multilingual skills is to introduce a foreign language curriculum in the schooling system with the idea being that children can develop their ability to speak a language different than the one they speak at home. Then when they are adults, they can take advantage of that by being able to interact with others from a different culture. Evidently, this follows the basic tenets of schooling.
However, with the ever-increasing interconnectedness of modern society, that communal blessing has steadily evolved into a curse in disguise.
The logic in this reasoning is sound and in theory, should be an effective way to teach children a new language. However, a study of the bilingual skillset of Americans has shown that 60 million Americans are in fact able to fluently speak a language other than English, but most developed this ability by learning their second language at home whereas 231 million Americans can only fluently speak English meaning that they did not learn a new language in school. Furthermore, it is estimated that only 1% of American adults are proficient in a language they took in high school. That means the American foreign language curriculum has failed about 250,000,000 people (see U.S Census for population statistics), resulting in these adults not being prepared for the world as they should be. To make matters worse, this figure will only continue to climb as more and more students take ineffective classes.
Being that we are very interested in aspects of bilingualism and the acquisition of another language, these facts and the manner in which the system is getting worse immediately caught the attention of our team and drove us to the following question: How do we reform the American foreign language curriculum to adequately equip students to comfortably and effectively articulate a language other than English? This question is what is at the heart of our ambitious moonshot project.
...60 million Americans are in fact able to fluently speak a language other than English, but they developed this ability by learning their second language at home whereas 231 million Americans can only fluently speak English meaning that they did not learn a new language in school.
The typical experience for many during their time in an American K-12 foreign language class involves memorizing a litany of "vocabulary words" (which oftentimes are translations for very specific objects/phrases that are seldom actually used), conjugations, and other grammar concepts that they then write down on simple worksheets that in essence only test one's short-term memory. This is not at all an active, enjoyable learning experience used by the world's best language-learners (see video below) nor the methods championed by linguistics or neuroscientists that are experts in the language functionality of the brain.
The end result is that these students come away from their classes barely able to put together coherent sentences and understand the subtleties of this new language which is made worse by the fact that within a matter of a few months, they forget most if not all of what they were forced to memorize. They basically end up where they were when they started the class. Thus, when they find themselves in a situation where that language they took in high school would be useful (ie., a business meeting, a very sick patient only speaks that language, a recent immigrant who is a native speaker of that language needs to be told their rights, a job they really want requires them to speak that particular language, etc...), they are at a loss and full of self-loathing when it was the system's fault, not theirs. Then, they are led to believe that they and other Americans are just not good at learning a new language which in turn inhibits them from doing so. This leads to a self-destructing cycle that plays a large role in why America, as a country, struggles to teach itself languages other than English.
This lack of American bilingualism also rears its ugly head on a day-to-day basis in another way: it is a fundamental part of the racial and cultural tensions that manifests themselves in a plethora of areas of society. Many people who share their experiences of being targets of racism say that they were targeted because they were speaking a language other than English. However, this would happen a lot less frequently if more Americans were taught how to speak another language because that would help remove the stigma of speaking a non-English language in public. Additionally, it would assist in easing more subtle racial tensions that are oftentimes the result of a lack of nuanced understanding between cultures. This is because when you are actually learning a language, you inevitably begin to understand aspects of the cultures of the people who speak it due to the intimate connection between language and culture.
How do we reform the American foreign language curriculum to adequately equip students to comfortably and effectively articulate a language other than English?
As we have seen, language is a powerful connection point between different groups of people, and with the modern global economy and business world, it is known to be an advantageous career skill. However, teaching students another language also has numerous educational and neurological benefits. Being bilingual has been shown to have many cognitive and sensory benefits, such as an ability to more effectively process information in a disorderly environment, leading to a clearer signal for learning. Additionally, someone who acquires a second language is more likely to acquire a third than someone who is monolingual acquiring a second. Also, it is shown to help fight the natural decline of cognitive function in the elderly and maintaining a cognitive reserve. There are even studies that suggest that bilingualism could change the structure of the brain by showing a correlation of bilingualism and higher language acquisition with correlates with higher gray matter volume in the left inferior parietal cortex.
So it is quite evident that solving the problem of how best to re-invent the American foreign language curriculum would have far-reaching benefits for many Americans and in-turn people around the world, so why has this not been done yet? What is really preventing us from teaching students a new language in American classrooms?
As was mentioned above, parts of the problem include the poor curriculum and techniques used in the classroom that fails to enable students to express themselves freely because it is designed to just make students memorize things they will soon forget and the national misbelief that Americans are just not good at learning a new language. Additionally, there is a lack of funding for well-trained teachers and helpful resources because language programs are oftentimes the target of yearly budget cuts because its importance is overlooked. Furthermore, the fact that Americans have been struggling to learn new languages in school for quite some time now means that the pool of bilingual-speaking teachers is falling as part of an unfortunate cycle.
... it is estimated that only 1% of American adults are proficient in a language they took in high school. That means the American foreign language curriculum has failed about 250,000,000 people...
Evidently, the current state of the American foreign language education system is such that there is a great deal of room for improvement; this is evident by the fact that there are 250,000,000 American adults who cannot speak a language that they took in school which means that they are unable to reap the potential cognitive, social, and economic rewards that they should be given that many of them spent several years in class for a specific foreign language. We are still in the process of brainstorming solutions to this and we certainly feel like this is worth the effort thanks to the millions up millions of lives it will help improve now and in the future.
To give additional information as to how we as a group arrived at this topic and wanting to tackle this very important question, each of us have different experiences learning languages (Sebastian learned Spanish at home growing up, Maysa tried to learn English in France while in school, and Sara is in the process of learning Portuguese) and so were drawn to the topic of language acquisition and bilingualism in general. While trying to narrow down our focus and goals, we considered questions such as how to best teach adults who have jobs, are raising families, etc. a new language given their time constraint, how can we understand how your identity is a function of the language you are speaking, and how can we make sense of the phenomena of code-switching? However, after thinking through these potential projects, we came to the realization that we wanted to work on something that was directly affecting people on a day-to-day basis (taking out the last two ideas) and we also felt that focusing on the language acquisition of children would create a snowball effect that would allow for more adults to be fluent in non-English languages. The end result is where we are at now, considering how best to reform the current American foreign language curriculum and we hope to make great progress.
See our presentation given in class here.
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