Home / Wait, So Like Not Everyone Speaks English? America’s Language Problem

Wait, So Like Not Everyone Speaks English? America’s Language Problem

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If you’re a born and bred Yankee, chances are you can’t speak a different language. Most of us know a few basic words and phrases, but when it comes to having a real conversation…well, that’s questionable.

It’s not that other languages aren’t offered at our schools; there are plenty, especially at the college level. The problem starts in grade school, where there is little emphasis on foreign language education.

My elementary school’s idea of a foreign language class consisted of watching The Lion King in Spanish every day. Seriously?

I can’t speak for our entire country, but in Oklahoma foreign languages are not even required to graduate high school. Unless you want a Certificate of Distinction when you walk across that stage, then the school system doesn’t give a crap.

According to the Tulsa Public Schools website, students have the option to take two units of the same foreign language to substitute the one required unit of technology. Technology classes range anywhere from family and consumer science to business tech. How is it that these totally different subjects could be interchangeable? Both are equally important in receiving a well-rounded education and preparing students for college course work.

In countries such as France, it is mandatory that students begin learning a first foreign language starting in collège, which is the French equivalent of middle school. Students also have to take a second foreign language, or regional French language, during this time as well. Upon completing high school, the French must take an exam called Le Baccalauréat in order to pursue education at a university. Students have to demonstrate their knowledge on a number of subjects on this exam, including their foreign language of choice.

According to an article on Gallup.com, only one-fourth of Americans can speak another language well enough to have a real conversation. Seventy seven percent of Americans believe it is absolutely necessary that immigrants in the U.S. speak English. However, only 19 percent think that it’s necessary for Americans to speak a second language.

The fact that so few Americans are fluent in other languages puts us at a disadvantage. What if you want to study abroad? What if you have a business partner who is Russian? What if you need help from someone who can’t speak your language? As a society we think everyone visiting the good old US of A should speak perfect English or “go the hell back where they came from.” Then we go trotting off to other countries expecting them to cater to our needs and speak our language.

A solution to this issue could be making it obligatory that students pick a foreign language to study the entire time they’re in school. Other countries do it, and there is much to be learned by their example.

Language is everything. It’s how we express ideas, make friends, and change the world. If America placed as much importance on appreciating other cultures as it does on math, we could truly live up to our name as the greatest country in the world.

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About Kylee Gwartney

  • This is, like, an amazing article. Although I do wish you’d included hyperlinks to your sources. Your reference to Gallup.com led me to a poll conducted in 2001, which hardly seems up to date.

    Moreover, I could find no match whatsoever on Gallup.com for the rude phrase “go the hell back where they came from.”

    Please share with us your source for asserting, “As a society we think everyone visiting the good old US of A should speak perfect English or ‘go the hell back where they came from.'”

    In any case, when I reached your final sentence, I confess total consternation. “If America placed as much importance on appreciating other cultures as it does on math,” you write, “we could truly live up to our name as the greatest country in the world.”

    According to the most recent data I could find online, compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics and published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, compared to other countries the United States ranks eleventh in average mathematics scores of fourth-grade students, and ninth for eighth-graders. Nations ranking higher than ours include not only the usual Asian suspects such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei and Japan, but also Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Russian Federation, and Kazakhstan. Seriously! Kazakhstan, for crying out loud.

    Ms. Gwartney, I wish you the greatest success in your academic pursuits and beyond. But for now, I hope you’ll tell us what is “the greatest country in the world,” since you allege that we are not living up to that distinction. Thus informed, I may study their language so I can someday visit the greatest country in the world. Wouldn’t that be nice?

    If only in my youth I’d had the foresight to study Kazakh, which is the first official language of Kazakhstan, or even Russian, which is their second official language and is actually spoken by most Kazakhstanis.

    For now, alas, I must remain disadvantaged with American English here at home. What a sad and deprived life I lead.

  • jim

    this is a stupid article

    I speak, read, and write Spanish, Portuguese and German

    for better or for worse English is the world language and it is easy for other people to learn it, and since a language drags along a cultural outlook (like equality as known in the Anglo Saxon mind) it is good, in my estimation, that as many people as possible learn it

    the wall street journal recently ran an editorial that basically aid if you lknow only english no problem

    I know a lot about language and I have lived and worked in MANY countries

    the WSJ article is exactly right – if you are interested in or know other languages more power to you – but if you only know one make sure it is ENGLISH

  • Kylee Gwartney

    Mr. Kurtz, as I stated in my article this is from an Oklahoma point of view. Many people in the south, in my state in particular, have the arrogant “speak English or go the hell back where you came from” attitude. I was simply speaking from personal experience, because sadly I’ve heard people say that to people visiting our country. As for the math issue, obviously the US is not too hot in the scoring department. That goes without saying. However, the damn subject is shoved down our (students) throats in ungodly, and unnecessary, amounts in OK. I only meant that our time might be better spent if we were allowed more time to study foreign languages. Yes, I do think America is the greatest country in the world. I just don’t think we’re living up to our full potential. Didn’t mean to offend anyone by that. God forbid our massive egos get hurt. We have wonderful opportunities here and we ought to take advantage of that. That’s all I’m saying.

    Further more, I’m doing this for a class. I’m not trying to piss people off for fun. I don’t appreciate the sarcasm from either of you, but I value your opinions as your entitled to them. This is something I feel passionately about and I’m entitled to my opinion too. People don’t have to agree with me 🙂

  • Just out of curiosity, since you admit you’re doing this for a class, how did you pick Blogcritics? Did your professor assign this site or was that your idea? If the latter, you really ought to have taken a closer look at the comments Blogcritics attracts. Around here, sarcasm is considered kid-glove treatment. So far, you’ve gotten off light.

  • kurt Brigliadora

    Oh yes and we too. Had to take a language in school …Spanish…but unfortunately the teachers were more disfuntional than the students,,,needless to say we learned not a thing in the class room, Oh well more wasted tax dollars.

  • Arch Conservative

    Kylee you claim imply that there is something wrong with the people in your state who have the “speak English or go the hell back where you came from” attitude but then turn around and chastise Americans for wanting to speak English in other nations.

    If Americans must learn to speak English for travel to other nations then why must people who come here not make an attempt to speak English to us? After all English is our most predominant language and has been historically. Also, a large part of those in this nation who speak spanish have entered this country illegally.

    I, like you see the value of learning a language other than English but you’ve not even attempted to discern the reasons that may exist for Americans not being as bilingual as others in other parts of the world.

    First of all English is one of the most widespread languages and one of the most domainant languages in the business world. This is not true of most other languages.

    Second….in other parts of the world, Europe particularly, nations are much smaller and travel from nation to nation where different languages may be spoken is much cheaper, easily done and frequently done. The ability to be bilingual is much more practical and worthwhile than it is here in the states where travel to another nation where another language is is much more costly, time consuming and generally difficult.

  • Arch Conservative

    That should have read if Americans must learn to speak other languages for travel to other nations

  • Andrew

    I absolutely agree with your passion about language learning, and I think a lot of it has to do with the U.S. being a bit of an isolationist country that has stemmed not only from our geographical location but also from our dominant position in the world which leads to the situation where OTHER people MUST learn our language if they want to thrive economically and politically, but we don’t need to learn anyone else’s since we’re the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

    It’s certainly not healthy, and ultimately harms us, but it is what it is, and it’s going to be a LONG time before you see any big changes, though it is happening slowly.

    I do have to say, though, I have a hard time believing that 25% of Americans are conversationally fluent in a 2nd language, I seriously doubt it’s that many, and whatever the percentage, I guarantee you that the MAJORITY of them are fluent in a language other than English because they’re immigrants and the ‘second’ language they speak is actually their native one, and they speak English because they had to learn it when they came here. :/