“I’m never going to use this language, why do I have to take this class?”
“Everyone speaks English, so why do I have to learn another language?”
As much as it saddens my language-loving heart to write such things, I see tweets from young students making claims like those above every single day. Most high schools in the United States require at least two years of language study, and rightly so. Yet many students refuse to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, writing it off as useless. So, American school students, I challenge you to think of your compulsory language class as an opportunity, rather than a burden.
First, let’s dispel those comments above. Even though it may not be apparent to you right now, you never know when or how second language skills come in to play. Don’t limit yourself (or your future self) by snoozing through your language classes each day.
As far as “everyone speaks English”, let’s just derail that train of thought right now. There’s no exact figure on the number of proficient English speakers around the world, but I guarantee you it’s less than you’re picturing (especially if you take the above statement literally). According to the CIA World Fact Book, less than 5% of the world’s population speaks English as their primary language. Another 750 million people are believed to speak English to some level of competence, but if you combine those figures, that’s still less than 25% of the world who can hold a conversation in English.
Even if English isn’t quite as ubiquitous as it seems, why should young students care about other languages? Beyond the cognitive benefits and long-term health benefits of bilingualism, proficiency in a foreign language has many rewards that are more immediately relevant to today’s students.
So let’s explore a few reasons why you should actually pay attention in language class this semester:
- Improve your English skills. Wait, what? Wasn’t I just talking about learning a foreign language? Yup. But while we’re on the topic of English, did you know that studies have shown learning a foreign language actually improves reading scores in English? For you students facing the dreaded SATs and GREs in a few years, this is good news! In fact, reports show that SAT scores climb with each additional year of foreign language classes taken.
- Improve your chances of college (or graduate school) admissions: Most colleges and universities now require a minimum of two years of language study, with many of the more competitive institutions recommending even more. Whether you’re studying physics or international relations, admissions officers will expect you to have studied a second language, so even if your school somehow doesn’t require you to do so, it’s really in your best interest to sign up.
- Expand your study abroad options: Ah, study abroad! The highlight of oh so many college careers, including mine. But guess what? Everyone can’t study abroad in London or Sydney. In fact, you might find a fantastic study abroad program in your field of interest, but it may be conducted in a foreign language. I personally studied international development through a program in Niger, where French language skills were a pre-requisite. You could find yourself studying biology in German or ecology in Spanish, or… you could not. Studying a language in school opens up a world of new opportunities to you, study abroad programs being just one of them.
- Open up career opportunities. Speaking of opening up new opportunities, what about career opportunities? This may seem too far off for you high schoolers (and perhaps coming up too quickly for you college seniors!), but language skills have become a highly desirable skill in today’s job market. And I’m not just talking about translators, international businessmen, or diplomats. Language skills come in the play in a variety of positions, ranging from nursing and law enforcement to marketing and journalism. Not sure what you want to do yet? Don’t limit your future opportunities by skipping out on those language credits.
- Gain a global perspective. If you’re about the head off to college in a few years, especially far from home or in a big city, you’ll find yourself facing people whose backgrounds and beliefs vary significantly from your own. Studying a language exposes you to another culture, and another way of thinking. It gives you the opportunity to see situations from an outsider’s perspective. This kind of exposure will help you make the transition from high school to college.
So when you take your seat in Spanish, French, or whichever language you may have in your course schedule, sit up, open your ears, and soak it all in! It’s not just another pile of homework, it’s an opportunity to learn a new skill while improving other basic skills like reading, and it’s a doorway to future opportunities that you can’t even imagine right now. As a young student, the world is your proverbial oyster, but if you float by thinking everyone speaks English (or should learn it), you’re imposing a number of limits on yourself, personally, professionally, socially, economically, and beyond.