Is your education keeping you from being multilingual?

education multilingualism

In a well-meaning opinion piece in James Madison University’s newspaper, The Breeze, sophomore Rachel Petty writes that after two months of living in Europe, “[t]he majority of European people [she’s] met speak at least (emphasis on the ‘at least’) three languages”.

Petty chalks this up to European schools having curricula that favor language learning; the US needs to reconsider its own educational approach and start students learning foreign languages earlier. In Petty’s ideal scenario, all US students would have Spanish integrated into their curriculum from preschool. A bilingual education would be a radical change from the current US system, but it wouldn’t stop there. Since “only learning one language isn’t enough”, in high school, students would have to take another foreign language.

I agree with some of Petty’s thoughts, but I have a problem with many others. I do think language learning should be considered more important than it already is in America, and I love the idea of students having a bilingual education, and then learning a second foreign language as well. But this brings up my biggest problem with Petty’s piece: get to know more Europeans, and you’ll realize methods like these don’t always work.

Among the many generalities and assumptions Petty makes, one of the most glaring to me is her use of “Europe” and “Europeans”. Europe isn’t just one country and culture.  School systems can differ from one nation to the next.  How does she know all European countries encourage language learning in the same way and to the same degree?

The next generalization is even more important, because it’s the crux of Petty’s argument: not all Europeans are multilingual.  According to the most recent Eurobarometer report on languages, only 54% of Europeans speak more than one language.  Of that 54%, 25% are trilingual and 10% are multilingual.  And since the study’s participants had to rate their own language skills, some of those claims of fluency might not hold up.

I’m not writing all of this to attack an idealistic, well-meaning college student, or Europeans (both would be silly, the latter downright bizarre: I chose to live in Europe and my husband and son are European). I’m trying to debunk the idea that without early access to foreign language classes, you’ll never be multilingual.  People are people.  Whether we learn it in school or later in life, those of us who become fluent in a foreign language are fluent because we need or really want to be.

And even if you do become bilingual or multilingual, you have to maintain your language skills. If you’re not motivated to do this, all of it was in vain — another reason why no matter how many European school systems require students to study multiple languages, not all students will end up multilingual.

Blaming schools just shifts responsibility. Is it easier to pick up a foreign language as a child? Absolutely.  But it’s important to remember that you can learn a language at any age.  It may not be possible to make a country’s education system change, but you can make a change in your own life.  If, like Petty, you regret that you don’t speak multiple languages, there are so many resources out there: foreign language associations, conversation groups, online classes, learning programs — heck, if you’re reading this, you could even click here and see about aiaTranslations’ own courses.  Take it from a bilingual American who’s currently learning a third language: no matter where you’re born, life and educational opportunities are what you make of them.

by Alysa Salzberg

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