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Language learning should be a priority in U.S education

Over the summer, I spent most of my time recovering from an invasive procedure, which allowed me to have quite a bit of spare time. During this time, I was able to catch up on my language learning. I’ve recently been studying multiple languages, including Japanese, Italian and Danish. I have always enjoyed learning about various cultures, languages and systems, however, during my journey I felt isolated. 

Growing up as a black kid from Baltimore, I did not see many opportunities to learn languages or explore different cultures. It was not until my senior year in high school that I was offered a chance to take a foreign language class, and even then it was offered to check a box in academic requirements. Outside of schooling, the opportunities were even more scarce. Looking back, I can truly see just how detrimental this was.

 Baltimore in particular lacks a clear focus on language learning and encouraging its youth and young adults to gain outside cultural and language perspectives. According to a 2019 report, only 20% of Americans can speak two languages fluently. In Baltimore, 9.88% speak multiple languages. Out of those 9.8%, most do not speak English as their first language. It is clear that native English speakers are not being pushed to learn languages. It is imperative that we encourage language learning at a young age.

Growing up, I received pushback for wanting to learn languages, ranging from confusion to envy, anger and disappointment. Some did not understand the point in learning obscure languages, while others I should be learning a particular language instead of the one I was interested in. 

Programmer Crystal Garcia, who graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2018, agrees with this sentiment. She said, “I grew up in a primarily English speaking household. I know some Spanish but I am not fluent. When my cousins came down, I could barely speak. My mother refused to teach me. I think she thought she needed to assimilate. Maybe she thought I would have a better opportunity? But the opportunities came when I actually started studying Spanish and French.

Studies have shown that the demand for bilingual/multilingual workers has doubled in the past few years. It is clear that there are benefits to knowing a language fluently. Unfortunately, we do not see this reflected in our education until university. This makes our youth and young adults unprepared for the workforce. This, however, is not a global problem. It seems to be featured more in the United States education system. 

Rod Onai, a programmer and 2012 UMBC graduate, shared his language journey, stating that, “I speak 4 languages fluently, but so do all of my mates. It is important to know how to communicate with others. Where I am from, it is mandatory to know these languages, but when I came here with my brother, I realized that not many Americans can speak or that they are impressed when bilingual people. I do not mean offense, but Americans seem to love to stay comfortable in a sort of bubble they’ve made. They say that America is a melting pot, but what use is that if they only pick out one ingredient, you know? Taste the full pot.”

Over the years, the U.S education system has unfortunately dropped the ball when it comes to language learning. In fact, since the 1990s, language education has dropped to 25% in elementary schools and 58% in junior high. University language learning is not faring much better, with colleges dropping nearly 600 programs from 2013 to 2016. With more than 70% of the world not being English speakers, it is safe to say that it is important to be encouraged to learn other languages. 

With funding being cut and public support at a low, it seems that language learning will not be a priority in the near future. This fact, however, is not new for some.

Anne Morgan, a phlebotomist at Johns Hopkins, highlighted the lack of education in Baltimore’s school systems. “Back then growing up [in the 60s], we were never told to go and learn a language. We didn’t have it in school. They didn’t know anything about that. Nowadays, people are exploring more and having more opportunities because of the internet. My grandkids go to private school and they are learning two languages, [American] Sign Language and Spanish. There’s no doubt in my mind that if they’d gone to public school, they wouldn’t be learning any of it. They probably would be learning English right,” Morgan said.

The benefits to learning languages are long, ranging from improving memory to academic prospects, career movement and communication. Language learning affects not just your cognitive health, but can also bring joy mentally. The career outlook also increases, as studies show that tacking on a second language can increase your pay rate by up to 20% for language-related duties.

I asked D’wayne Roanne, Anne’s grandson, what he liked most about learning a new language. He smiled and said, “I get to meet new friends and talk to people I couldn’t before.” 

His mother, Leteshia Roanne echoed his feelings, stating, “It will open doors for him. My son will grow up and have more opportunities for him. There is power in that. For a black young man, there is power in that.”

Mei Egoshi, a UMBC senior majoring in Design BFA with a minor in Japanese and Print Media, highlighted the joys of studying languages. Mei said, “The advantage of learning multiple languages is having better communication with the people around you.”

 Mei is relearning Japanese and strengthening their skills. Mei stated, “I wanted to re-learn Japanese because I want to communicate better with my Japanese parents. I can have casual conversations, but when it comes to political or religious discussions my words don’t come out. I would really like to convey to them my political and religious stand-points and defend myself more clearly.”

Languages are a way to communicate, learn and advance in life. It is extremely important to have the opportunity to study other cultures and languages. By immersing oneself in other cultures, we can start to understand and uplift each other. Language learning of all kinds should be a priority in our education systems because it is not just about checking off a box, it is about exploring cultures, preserving cultures and bonding with each other.