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  • Sam Merritt

The Transformative Power of Language

For most, foreign language is not a preferable topic of interest. To students it frequently represents a spot on a transcript, a class to pass. It is no secret that Americans fall below the curve in terms of foreign language education. A national report commissioned by Congress has concluded that only about 25% of all elementary schools in the United States offer any language education beyond English.[1] As a global superpower with reaching talons of influence, citizens of the United States often don’t feel the need to learn a language other than English, but does this idea stand up to scrutiny? U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reports in 2010 that only 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language.[2] In order to fix this extreme lack of multilingualism, the United States must prioritize foreign language programs. However, on many fronts, this is not happening. From 1997 to 2008, instruction in public elementary schools dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent, with rural districts hit the hardest. Additionally, the percentage of all middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 75 to 58 percent. Moreover, the way in which foreign language instruction is given in the U.S. most often leaves students feeling unprepared for practical use of the language. This affects the United States in a multitude of ways. The most important of which being the economy. With new markets opening across the world every day language education is critical. Each day American companies come up short of global demand as a shocking one in six U.S. companies are constricted from entering international markets due to lack of language skills and cultural awareness in the workforce. With economic forces such as China and India gaining in GDP and commerce the United States must institute comprehensive foreign language reform with the end goal of preparing students for a more interconnected and competitive world than ever. Politically, in order to create lasting change, foreign languages must be rediscovered. For years the United States has exercised protectionist trade philosophy, while consequently nationalism and nativism have risen worldwide. The current political landscape of the United States reminisces upon the unipolar dominance exercised by the United States directly following the Cold War, despite this prosperity diminishing. If the United States is to remain the global hegemon it perceives itself as it must be willing to adapt with the times. Prioritization of foreign language education fulfills this need by opening students to different cultural mindsets and systems of ideology. Language is the root of all understanding. To open a student's mind to the prospect of cross cultural expression is to further advance this country. Socially, language education can play a ground breaking role in helping Americans develop heightened cultural awareness. When one takes it upon themselves to learn a foreign language they not only gain the ability to operate complex grammatical structures, but also the complex understanding of the nuances of an unfamiliar culture. This understanding alone allows the individual to create effective dialogue towards legitimate reform that is often restrained by lack of comprehension and critical analysis. I challenge my readers to become not a statistic, but rather an individual with the capabilities to change the dynamic of the world stage, to reform the coming injustices, and to learn from the past. As individuals, we must band together to look for what we share in common. When an individual begins to do this they gain the full understanding that there is much more that connects us than divides us. The prioritization of language education satisfies this as relationships between two foreign parties are built when a cultural connection is established, especially a spoken one. In order for reform a strive for understanding the positions of others is more than necessary. I believe Nelson Mandela phrased it best in his quote "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."




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