Language Education for a New Generation Eight Ideas to Spark a Learning Revolution
From our friends at the Asia Society’s Chinese Language Initiative
by Chris Livaccari
How many Americans have studied four or five years of French or Spanish in school and yet can barely manage a sentence of that language once we hit adulthood? Why do Americans continue to be ridiculed and sneered at by people around the world for our lack of linguistic prowess?
Many educators with a global outlook are wrestling daily with these legacies of American exceptionalism. The reality, of course, is that many Americans are multilingual. Indeed, many of the best foreign speakers of Chinese and Japanese I have ever met are Americans. I think the problem is one of being a nation of extremes—a country in which you’d expect to find the very best language learners and the very worst, just as you’ll find, for example, the most obese people and the most health-obsessed.
The major challenge is lack of incentives. Why do people in Iceland speak such beautiful English? The answer is simple: you wouldn’t get very far in life speaking only a language understood by less than half a million people on a single island north of Europe. While there is currently an explosion of interest in Chinese language learning among Americans, the fact is that the vast majority of international business conducted in China—and globally—is conducted in English. So what’s the incentive for any American kid to learn another language?
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