America is a tossed salad of languages. As California’s population has grown through immigration from all over the planet, its students have reflected that diversity. America’s multi-lingual character has everything to do with the recent history of immigration. Unfortunately, it has rather little to do with education that children receive in schools.
Few American K-12 school systems seriously embrace the multi-year work of preparing students to build proficiency in a language other than English. Mastery of a foreign language is simply not expected of most American children.
This is quite a blind spot. In the last two decades, China has transformed from third world nation to economic wonder. Arabic-speaking countries have become vitally important to America. But few American students have the option to learn these languages during their pre-teen years, when they are linguistic sponges.
To master a foreign language takes time and focus. It requires specialized instruction and practice over multiple years, and it matters a great deal whether the learning takes place before puberty or after it. America’s current tendency to leave foreign language instruction to middle and high school years is devastating from the perspective of results. It is also unusual by international standards.
Outside the United States, multilingualism is widespread. In China, for example, students learn their local dialect as well as Mandarin and, more recently, English. America’s chronic weakness in language instruction comes from a long history of ambivalence. Almost all countries in the European Union require foreign language study beginning in elementary school, and many choose English. Why not just expect the rest of the world to learn English?
For English speakers, some languages are more difficult to master than others. According to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, “it takes an average English speaker 1,320 hours to become proficient in Mandarin [but only] 480 hours to learn Spanish, French or Italian.”
Thanks to Peter Kuperman for help preparing this post.