A Call for Greater Foreign Language Education in the U.S.

by | May 10, 2014

I needed to buy a heating pad, but did not know where in the oversized pharmacy it would be sold. Despite not wanting to, I decided to ask the pharmacist. What came out of my mouth made very little sense, though. The only question I could think to ask was, “Where can I buy something that gives hot?” Understandably, he stared at me like I had two heads. He proceeded to ask, “You have a fever?” and he held up a pack of Tylenol. I shook my head in frustration.
Maybe I should mention that this conversation was conducted in Hebrew, and I simply had no idea how to ask for a heating pad, except in English.
Studying abroad in Israel has made me realize how important it is to be able to speak the native tongue wherever you are. If you ever truly want to immerse yourself in a foreign culture, avoid the ‘American’ prices at the local markets, and dodge being stereotyped as an American by every other person you meet, the only solution is to learn the language of the land.
That is why I work hard to learn more Hebrew every day that I am here. I have started to engage in simple Hebrew conversations with Israelis, but sometimes I have to admit that I do not have the slightest clue what was just said to me. When that happens, I feel ashamed and ignorant.
More than that, I feel entitled — as an English speaker who expects the entire globe to speak my language, no matter my current location. When I go out in mixed groups of Israelis and Americans, the Israelis speak English for the Americans, despite the fact that we are actually in Israel. Similarly, when most of the American students meet a rare Israeli who cannot speak English, they simply move on and refuse to attempt communication in Hebrew. Everyone nearby notices our group’s rather obvious alien nature, branding us as ‘Americans’ wherever we go. We are then subjected to comments like, “Hellooo America,” and “Welcome to Israel!” and are not even asked if we can speak Hebrew.
In contrast, when I visited friends in Seville over spring break, my American friends and I spoke only in Spanish to communicate with locals whom we came into contact there. I noticed a difference in how the Spaniards treated us versus the Israelis. The Spaniards had a higher level of respect for us for being able to communicate in the language that everyone else around us was speaking. Perhaps they appreciated our desire to blend in, rather than to assert our differentness. Perhaps they appreciated our bilingual capabilities, since they understood that it is fairly common for Americans to only speak English.
We should all want to avoid being one of those people limited by only English. Yes, it is hard to learn a new language, especially when there are few opportunities for practice. The study abroad program of which I am a part offers courses only in English and surrounds us with only English-speaking international students in the dorms and our classes. It is effectively an English speaking bubble of isolation. Most of the students in my program do not even attempt to practice Hebrew, because it is so easy to never speak it within the dorms, the classes, and even on the streets — as almost every Israeli speaks English better than most Americans can speak Hebrew.
Nevertheless, I insist on practicing my Hebrew when I can — even if it is painful to listen to. I go out of way to meet Israelis and to experience the country as a local when possible. I know that because of this, I have gained much more from my study abroad experience.
I see the difference in the way Israelis look at me when they realize that I can string sentences together and participate in normal Israeli friend groups without a translator. I recognize that the cab drivers offer me better prices when I ask, “How much?” in Hebrew versus when my friends ask in English. I want to be able to fit in when I travel to a non-English speaking country, and I know that I can only attempt this through studying the language and not resorting to my English-speaking comfort zone.
I cannot help but wonder how so many people from around the world speak at least their native tongue, English, and maybe more, while most Americans only speak English.
What I realized, though, was that speaking at least two languages is the norm in many countries. It is not always considered a rare talent, or something that makes a person stand out from the rest. Being bilingual or trilingual is not always considered a special skill. Rather, it is the standard in many places.
Despite the ever-increasing number of people throughout the world learning to speak English, I genuinely hope that Americans will not continue to take for granted that everyone else will just speak English to us. The US should learn to prioritize language development in schools, so that like other nations, we can similarly raise children that are able to speak more than just their native tongue.
This does not mean starting 30-minute Spanish or French classes, once a week, in 3rd grade. Language education should begin at a much younger age, when children are most receptive. Additionally, if students are expected to succeed (and to succeed quickly) in learning a new language, they should be immersed in it for hours at a time, several times a week. Israel offers ‘ulpans,’ which are intensive immersion courses for several weeks at a time. My ulpan met for 4-hour sessions, 5 days a week, for 1 month. This seems to be the easiest and fastest way that the skill can be developed.
Americans need to decide that foreign language study should be a priority and commit to learning more than just English. Despite the fact that many people around the world do speak English, there are still quite a large number of people who do not speak English, which means communicating with them is off-limits without knowing their language. If Americans begin to become bilingual or trilingual — whatever an individual’s language of choice may be — we will be able to expand our horizons in so many different directions. We will be able to have greater international job opportunities, to be included in more than just American social circles, and to overall earn far greater respect from natives of other countries throughout the world.
Knowing a foreign language has always seemed like an impressive extra skill in the US, but today it has become more of a necessity — as languages like Chinese and German have begun to dominate the business world, for example. Being a member of the global community means that we need to adopt global skills to be able to connect with a larger scope of people. If Americans begin to see the unmatchable value in language education, perhaps this ideal can become a reality.

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