The foreign language requirement in US schools is stupid

In high school, I took French and German, and in college I took Hebrew. I spent four months in Israel studying Hebrew and three months in France learning ten french words for chicken coop. So I’m coming to this conversation with a bias in favor of learning a second language.

I read it’s next to impossible for parents to teach a baby a language that is not your native language. And my friends who spoke second languages beautifully confirmed this universal failing to be true.

That seemed fine. French is my best language and even the Francophiles in Montreal won’t speak French to someone from the States. So I hired a Spanish-speaking nanny who knew no English.

It sort of worked. By age three, my son said all Thomas the Tank Engine train names with a Spanish accent, and he truly believed all Toy Story characters only spoke Spanish. But what I found is that if the nanny was not there most of the day, my son was not learning Spanish. You really need to have the person speaking full-time in order for this all to work. By age 4 there was no more Spanish. And by age 12 he didn’t remember a word of Spanish.

I didn’t care until he was 13 and announced he wants to be Mr. Go To College, and he needed a second language. As a homeschooler he doesn’t have grades, so he will have to prove proficiency by taking an AP Spanish exam. I hired a tutor and the first thing she said was, “He has a great accent.”

It turns out no one really learns a second language in US schools. Look at these shockingly miserable statistics from Pew Research:

Only 25% of American adults self-report speaking a language other than English, according to the 2006 General Social Survey. Of those who know a second language, 43% said they can speak that language “very well.” Within this subset of multilinguals who are well-versed in a non-English language, 89% acquired these skills in the childhood home, compared with 7% citing school as their main setting for language acquisition.

Very few Americans learn a second language fluently in school. But we are not alone. Canada requires everyone to take ten years of French, and most Canadians are not fluent. Other English-speaking countries make just as poor an effort. For example in the US, 20% of students take classes for a second language, compared to only 10% in Australia.

One of the reasons English-speaking kids don’t learn a second language is there’s not much benefit. Most opportunities present themselves in English. And most non-native English speakers learn English as a second language. The time my son is most likely to use his Spanish is to talk about walking the dog so the dog doesn’t get too excited.

In contrast, the rest of the world really wants to learn English – first to play video games and then to have more job opportunities. And most of the world lives very close to people who do not speak their native language, so there is a benefit to learning their neighbor’s language.

There are benefits to learning a second language even if you can’t speak it, but there are benefits to all the other things you could have done with that time as well: learn to play piano, learn to do improv, finish a triathlon, etc. Each of those activities helps the brain develop in new ways.

Instead, we should consider that there is little incentive for American kids to learn a second language, so they don’t. Even if you force the kids to sit in a classroom to learn the second language.

I’m worried about spending so much time and money to teach my son Spanish. The Spanish tutor is tough – in a good way – and she has been very effective at teaching my son time management and personal responsibility. So, I am joining the legions of parents who say their kid is learning a second language for reasons that go beyond fluency.

But I can’t help thinking the lesson he’s really learning is that there is no value in controlling your own curricula. And I’m frustrated with myself for not finding a way to be competitive in college admissions without capitulating to forced curricula.

25 replies
  1. Terri T.
    Terri T. says:

    One way to think about it is that – as you said – you have better uses for your time. Sometimes it’s better to capitulate and play by their rules, and save your energy for more important things. There’s no shame in that.

    My son is one of the lucky ones. His private school had an amazing middle school and high school language program. Then the French teacher left school the same year we did to do private tutoring. She’s expensive but he’s taking the AP this year (10th grade) and his skills are excellent so it’s totally worth it.

    On a related note someone told me that France has a huge market for mathematicians. So turns out French might be a good career move too.

  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    My daughter is teaching herself German because she wants to go to university there as a backup. She also is teaching herself Spanish because all her friends in middle school speak Spanish from their after school program many of them went to during elementary ages, and she doesn’t want to feel left out.

    Living a large majority of our lives in Southern CA I can attest speaking Spanish as a second language comes in handy on a near daily basis.

  3. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    The idea behind requiring foreign languages isn’t really about gaining fluency. The philosophy is more about exposing students to other ways of living and thinking. I am not sure that is accomplished through the requirement, either.

    The subject of college entrance requirements is another can of worms. How many hoops did you jump through? Ok. You can be honored that we are willing to take your money. Or. You do not qualify for us to take your money. We want a brand of student who will reflect our brand upon graduation.

    The arguments that rage about what qualifies a student, as well as what constitutes a degree are full of philosophical platitudes.

    If you want the piece of paper, meet the requirements. It is a waste of time to legitimize the logic behind the requirements.

  4. Karen Bracken
    Karen Bracken says:

    I could not agree more. Most developed countries speak English while American students today are taught very little about their own language. If you come to live in this country you should learn to speak OUR language not the other way around. I have a very good friend whose daughter went to a VERY expensive, exclusive private school and took French for 7 years. The kids can barely speak the language and if she were to spend any time in France she would probably find the dialect she was taught would not be of much help. Besides most people in France, Italy etc. speak English. Perhaps our schools should spend more time teaching American students how to write a proper sentence, how to spell, how to read and how to master their own language.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Karen, this is exactly the myopic, self-absorbed reasoning that proves we should have foreign language requirements in all American schools, k-12. The world is a big, open place where Americans are not exceptional and the better Americans are at recognizing that, the better off we all are. Assuming that people in other countries we visit should speak English for us while at the same time arguing that anyone visiting our country should speak English sounds like you’ve been spending too much time at Trump rallies.

      American schools spend a lot of time, maybe too much time, teaching proper sentence structure, etc. What they don’t provide is opportunity to use those skills at increasing complexity to write about different topics, communicate about complex issues, solve complex problems, etc. The same can be said of foreign language instruction that doesn’t lead to real world use, but at least it creates the possibility of visiting a foreign country without looking like an oblivious, self-centered “ugly” American.

      Not everyone is going to make use of the foreign language they learned in high school, but the fact that it’s required means there are more Americans with the potential for being globally-minded and able to put themselves out there to visit or live in other countries, work with people from different countries, and connect with and respect non-english speaking people in the US. The last thing we need is a shift in education policy that leads to an even more isolationist populace.

      Foreign language education is complicated. No one is going to become fluent by taking a few years of school-based language lessons, it’s hard to learn, and it’s not useful for many people beyond school. The same can be said of any math class beyond elementary school level arithmetic and geometry. But learning foreign languages opens doors that create options for many people, just as algebra does. We don’t require algebra because every student will become an engineer. We require it to create the potential for any student to have math and science careers available to them. Developing the capacity to learn languages benefits in similar ways (learning language structures through foreign language instruction makes it easier to learn subsequent languages and generally makes it easier to understand how languages work, and benefits any career path that involves communication, writing, media, as well as travel/transportation, public service, international business, policy, law, etc etc etc).

      Because it’s complicated and rarely done well, PT raises good points. Karen, apologies if you meant well but you seemed to be provoking this response, so here it is.

      • Julia
        Julia says:

        I also want to say that I studied Spanish for 4 years and then several years later traveled in Spanish speaking countries and then a few years after that lived in two other Spanish speaking countries. All the countries I lived and traveled in had different dialects from the one I learned in high school. I think you’re selling your young French speaking friend short. It’s an adjustment to go from school French to real-world French, but entirely possible for anyone who wants to do it.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Julia, this statement – “The world is a big, open place where Americans are not exceptional and the better Americans are at recognizing that, the better off we all are.” – leads me to believe you are taking the words “America” and “exceptional” out of its original context when used in the same sentence. It has nothing to do with Americans being exceptional or superior to other countries or individuals in those countries. “American exceptionalism is an ideology holding the United States as unique among nations in positive or negative connotations, with respect to its ideas of democracy and personal freedom.[2]” That’s the beginning sentence of the Wikipedia entry for American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism to me is the emphasis this country places on the individual, the important roles they may participate in our constitutional republic, the protection of individual rights, and the limits placed on the government. This country has its share of issues and missteps since its creation with all of its warts and blemishes transparently exposed for the rest of the world to see and criticize but I’ll take issue every day of the week with characterizations such as ugly American and isolationist populace.

        • Julia
          Julia says:

          I was responding to Karen, who claimed that Americans should be able to travel abroad and expect citizens of those countries to speak English, and almost in the same breath said that people coming to America should speak English. That’s an existing attitude of American exceptionalism, an unfortunate living interpretation of the idea. Our current president and his cronies actively and loudly promote and make policies for American isolationism. Finally, you can take issue with the characterization of ugly American, but it is an existing perception of Americans who travel around the world blaring Karen’s attitude. I love America and Americans, but that is ugly.

          • Muriel
            Muriel says:

            Karen didn’t claim that Americans should be able to travel abroad and expect citizens of those countries to speak English; she merely pointed out that in developed countries, the citizens often already do speak English. I realize that to characterize Karen’s perspective as exemplifying the “ugly American” satisfies your political leanings, but to twist another’s words and mischaracterize their meaning is ugly in itself. Perhaps there would be less of that particular form of ugliness if there was less time wasted on forcing foreign language curriculum on people for whom there is no foreseeable practical benefit, and more emphasis on basic communication skills like composition and reading. We can learn much more about other cultures – and thus how much more alike than different we all are – from reading history and culturally relevant works, than anyone will learn from the incidental cultural exposure one gets from forced language courses.

  5. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    I began an excellent and remunerative career right out of grad school – which was amply financed by fellowships and grants – thanks to my fluency in foreign languages. Likewise, my wife’s career is frequently helped by her fluency in multiple languages and comfort in different cultures.

    I am happy for other Americans not to learn second languages or have their children learn them. It increases my competitive advantage, and that of my children.

    I would like to promulgate the notion that ability to learn a foreign language differs greatly by individual, and that if you find it hard it’s because you’re terrible at it and always will be.

  6. Kati
    Kati says:

    This all may be true, but it is a terrible perspective.

    Business, careers, and survival may not need a language other than English, but our harmony as a society does. Learning another language is about learning empathy – it doesn’t matter how good you are at it or how much you use it. Being lost in a sea of words and sounds you don’t understand is a wonderful way to realize you aren’t the center of the universe. In an unexpected way it teaches kindness. Lessons Americans could use more of not less.

    If 100% of public schools in America were dual immersion Spanish/English for example – would we have the ‘family separation policy’, the denial of lost lives in Puerto Rico, the ‘build the wall’ chants?

    And knowing how you feel about schools – if public and private schools were immersion schools in any other language other than the one spoken at home – at least there would be a silver lining in the otherwise harm done to them by being sent away to be raised by others.

    Bottom line – we need MORE required language learning, not less. Not because it is useful to ones career, but because if makes us kinder more connected people. Utah is doing it – world languages are in 100% of their public schools, all ages.

    I’m curious how your son does with his Spanish studies. I have a suspicion he will learn/relearn Spanish faster and more easily than his peers. I don’t think ‘his good accent’ is the only gift you gave him when you hired the nanny and made him watch Spanish TV.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      How can truth be a terrible perspective? Truth just is what it is. We can wish the truth weren’t the truth. But I don’t think wishing it changes it.

      I also think there are a million ways to learn you are not the center of the world. Spending years learning another language seems to be an extreme way to accomplish this.


      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        With the increase in xenophobia that’s going on in our country, I think the language requirement is even more necessary than ever. While this is not something you may need to worry about with your own children, learning a 2nd language requirement is learning about the culture around that language. And yes, it can develop empathy for others and open-minds of those who are closed off due to whatever reason.

        Another benefit of homeschooling is that your kids don’t have to deal with that level of ignorance. But, it exists and I support the 2nd language requirement. So it’s just one of those things you need to just get through.

        My husband took ASL (sign language) and so did my siblings. That might be more engaging for your kids. Have you considered that as an alternative?

      • Kati
        Kati says:

        The truth is we don’t NEED language learning to function in business or in a career. The truth is also that this isn’t the point of required language learning. Without the comfort of a classroom, we have Americans who are uncomfortable with people minding their own business speaking another language, especially while being brown. At best they think they are being rude, or at worse assume a terrorist plot is unfolding.

        Waiting until high school or college to require the language learning is the problem – by this age the kids could be learning something else as you argue. In elementary school, all that’s needed is the art teacher to teach art, the math teach to teach math – but done in another language. No time is wasted, kids learn double. If continued through high school, the language learning is a byproduct of learning other subjects, and a byproduct of that is learned empathy. In a generation we could have a fully bi-lingual society – and the TRUTH, the stats you point to and the experiences one has, would be totally different. The truth will change. P.S. I found a better link to the Utah program,

    • MJ
      MJ says:

      I don’t know if learning anoter language increases empathy per se. I’m from Europe and after WWII children form my country had to learn German, mostly for bussiness as I am from one of the neighbouring countries (I only took English as a second language in school, dropped French and German as soon as I could and now live in the UK where I speak English daily). It took untill the second post-war generation for the common cultivated dislike for Germans to phase out (I am generalizing here for my argument but growing up in the 80s with grandparents who had lived under occupation, their was definitely a ‘Germany = bad, or at least not great, screw thoe Krauts’ sentiment). Less and less young people speak or study German now, but Germany as a place to visit or live in turned from ‘boring’ to ‘very cool’ during the same time. People are even sypathetic to their soccer team now (unlike when I was growing up) So there are a lot of other variables besides proficiency in a language that influence the cultural attitude towards other cultures.

      Having said that, later in life I learned Spanish for work and really enjoyed it! Where in school I hated having to learn all the exception to the gramatical rules in languages (I favoued Physics, Chemistry, and Math for their predictibiltiy), I just enjoyed it ow. Perhaps when the pressure isn’t on like with exams, it’s more fun to stumble though simple childlike sentences and see your own progress.

      Also, perhaps my opinion is influenced by being sort-of bolingual myself (Dutch and English, and the only reason so many Dutch people speak English alright is because no one speaks our language, underlining the argument of only learning something when you need it).

  7. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    For 30+ years, the foreign language instruction world has been pushing the “communicative” methods of foreign language learning in opposition to the previously used grammar-based methods.

    The idea was to get students speaking as soon as possible and using language. The belief is that students are engaged more and retain more because they are saying something meaningful to them and not rote examples. The teachers try to create immersion environment. You can debate about the efficacy of that forever.

    The belief also holds that too much grammar is not only boring, it, it slows down the acquistion process.

    Language proficiency involves a wide range of skills to work together. Grammar knowledge helps students make more guesses when comprehending and producing language. Without it, it is very difficult to generate ways to say original thoughts. Circumlocution is a skill that people use as they advance in proficiency. If you don’t know grammar, you have huge difficulties advancing in proficiency. And while there are people with a gift for foreign languages,there are others who have incredible self discipline and learn through sheer hard work. Like anything else, if people are unmotivated, they learn little and retain nothing.

    Thee is value in teaching kids that people don’t all think the same way and that language reflects that in concrete ways.

    And teaching foreign languages requires special talent. Most native speakers can’t begin to teach others in a formal setting.

    Should we be teaching for enrichment? Teaching for fluency? These are loaded questions and if you take a purely pragmatic stance, your answer will probably match Penelope’s.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I empathize with you on this matter. I have my own story of the language “requirement” for college admissions. It was long ago so evidently not much has changed. I had three choices (French, Spanish, and Russian) of which I chose French for three years in high school. It’s not that I didn’t like it or didn’t learn. What I most disliked is that it wasn’t my choice. My choice was German which wasn’t offered. And on top of that, I knew my focus was the sciences. It was so bad I remember going into the French NYS Regents exam and getting frustrated while taking the exam. I didn’t study for it because I didn’t care. I scored a 44 on it. I couldn’t care less. I applied to and was accepted by well known and respected colleges such as RPI and Clarkson with partial scholarships. I got good grades and cited some outside activities and interests on my application forms but still wonder to this day why I was accepted. Which brings me to my next and perhaps more important point.
    “And I’m frustrated with myself for not finding a way to be competitive in college admissions without capitulating to forced curricula.” My question is why are college and university admissions not more accountable to the students seeking admissions? More specifically, why aren’t college and university admissions more transparent and specific with their desires for the character, talents, skills, and academic qualifications of their future incoming classes? There are a fair amount of small institutions which are feeling the financial pinch and are either closing, downsizing, or merging. I think we’ll see disruptions in the competitive environment and marketplace of education but it will be a slow process. They are a lot of powerful interests who are invested in the status quo. As for your son’s circumstances, it could be worse. He could be in a classroom with a teacher who he doesn’t like for whatever reason learning a language that wasn’t his first choice by methods which don’t align with his learning style.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. Another instance of bad facts. Thank you for telling me. Maybe it’s theoretical. If Canada did, it would not work. Ok. Just kidding. Bad facts are bad.


      • Redhens
        Redhens says:

        In our area, there are several schools that offer French immersion. But that isn’t mandatory, nor is it available in all communities.

        But I agree that language training doesn’t work unless we continue to regularly use it. :-)

      • Kate
        Kate says:

        Ontario is a Canadian province that’s large and has a French education requirement.

        Good fact – between grades 4 and 8, kids are required to get 600 hours of instruction in French as a Second Language (FSL) at a Core (ie. Basic) level, and another 1 credit on high school to get their diploma. That’s the legal minimum. Most of those kids don’t really use French after graduation, and barely speak it as adults.

        There are also higher levels than Core (Extended and Immersion), which also have other subjects taught in French.

        Non-hard fact – parents who are engaged in their children’s education often put their kids in French Immersion (the highest level, seen as more ambitious). It’s a mistake for high school. Universities don’t want you to learn chemistry in French.

        • Bostonian
          Bostonian says:

          Most Americans don’t know what a political hot potato French language instruction has been in Canada.

          Not so long ago, French was heavily suppressed in Ontario. Despite always having a substantial minority who spoke French as a native language (Franco-Ontarians), teaching in French in public schools was illegal at the start of the 20th century and still a matter that brought people to picket lines and silly legislation – such as declaring Sault Ste. Marie an English-only town – towards the end.

          I lived in Ontario for a few years as a child in the early seventies, and at that time the government would only allow people who could prove Franco-Ontarian or Quebecois ancestry to enroll in schools that taught in French. That situation lasted for decades. It was de facto segregation, and this before the rise of APEC.

          However imperfect the FSL requirements are in Ontario today, it’s a better situation than it was a few decades ago.

  9. Sally
    Sally says:

    Canada doesn’t require anyone to take 10 years of French. In Alberta, the only requirement is one year in 7th grade.

  10. Kara
    Kara says:

    You really have no possibiliy of ever truly immersing yourself in another culture if you don’t know the language. I have travelled much and I know what the world thinks of entitled monolingual Americans. I feel sad for those trapped in English, but of course if you don’t travel it doesn’t matter. Though of course all the servants in the hotels are restaurants learn English to appease this crowd, but when I travel I want to know the people, the culture, not be waited on. Also there is a ton of research to the benefits of foreign language accusition. Just do a search. Though It’s much better to start the foreign language as young as possible for the full benefit.

  11. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    I am Canadian, but I am out of date. In my day, we didn’t have the money for teacher’s aides, let alone French teachers in elementary school as they do now.

    To enter a Canadian university you required algebra and a second language. (I don’t know if you had to keep taking those while on campus, probably not) I suspect (but how would I ever know?) the second language was a) to show you were smart, and b) because you used to take Latin to be educated, and this was the modern replacement.

    In the mid 1970’s the second language requirement for entry was dropped, but a few later there was a requirement for “bonehead English” because a significant number of high school graduates couldn’t even do English grammar, (so they all had to pay for a special test) let alone French grammar.

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