Learning a new language should be exciting. It could be exciting. It would be exciting if I were moving out of the US. It currently isn’t really any of those things, but I still am trying to do it. It is required in the US public highschool system to take a foreign language. I took Spanish from the sixth grade until graduating high school. That’s six years. I got straight As in that class. After highschool I joined the Navy, got married, and moved to Los Angeles. You would think I’d get to use my Spanish a lot living in LA wouldn’t you? Yeah, you’d think so.
Recently, I was encouraged to learn a new language. Learning a whole new one was far too daunting a task, so I chose to re-learn Spanish after 30 years of dormancy. I looked online and there are many places to take classes, for free. I checked out a couple and frankly it looks a little overwhelming. They say it gets tougher to learn new things as we age. So I’ve got that going for me. I started yesterday, at the very beginning with the articles “el” and “la.” I remembered most of the words in the vocabulary of the first lesson. The site I found even has little quizes and tests, both oral and written. I aced both my first two quizzes. Yay me.
In Europe I understand most people speak fluently three and four languages in addition to their native tongue. It seems to be a bit of a bone of contention among Europeans and Americans…we visit, or even move to, another country not even making the barest effort to learn the native language. I thought I should try to explain why.
I grew up in the German Midwest of the US. Very WASP. We had to drive 30 miles into the city to see a living person of color. I knew nothing of other cultures except for my German heritage and my adoptive Spanish. Everyone I knew was also a WASP. Still it was required that we learn a foreign language during high school. Especially during highschool. I took more years than most, by starting in the 6th grade. Almost everyone I knew took German. Why German, well you were far more likely to meet a German speaker in Wisconsin than a French one. Still, I chose Spanish, and went where no one in my group went before. And I liked it and I was good at it. By the time I graduated highschool, I wouldn’t say I was fluent, but I could understand oral and written Spanish quite flawlessly. I could read Don Quixote in Spanish. It was probably the only skill I left high school with.
So, nearly six years of Spanish, including two years of “Advanced” study, and what happens? I first live in the Southeastern US where I’m not even sure they were always speaking English. Then I go to Japan, where my Spanish would be certain to prove helpful. Then, before I’ve forgotten quite all of what I knew, I move to Southern California. At last I will be able to use my Spanish! But t was not to be. Living in LA there was always a native speaker nearby, so my skills were never called into use, never used, and it never occurred to me to just practice with those same native speakers.
That is why Americans don’t speak a foreign language. Very few places to actually use it here. Whereas in Europe you are likely to need to know 3-4 languages because you are more likely to come into frequent contact with someone speaking something other than your native langauge. In the US, while we are the melting pot, in generations past it was important to the immigrants to learn English and fit in. There has always been this sense that other languages are secondary, that English is the better language than whatever language you were born using. Today’s immigrants seem to already know English and come here with a distinct advantage. I think it’s definitely time the US made more of an effort to integrate other languages into the school curriculum.
So, my European friends, before you throw up your hands and scream “Americans,” please pause and think about what few opportunities we in the States actually have to use a foreign language. I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse our ignorance, we are slow to join the multicultural train.