In America, the big educational debate over the last couple years has been the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. Parents, educators and politicians are all concerned over the ability of young Americans to compete in a global job market. Whether or not NCLB is the best way to prepare youngsters, I definitely think we're right to be concerned.
Why? Because I'm finding that we're already behind.
For the last month, I've been taking an intensive German language course in Hamburg, Germany. For four hours everyday, I attend classes with young people from all over the world. Since the students are so global, the teacher speaks only in German. Even though it's a beginner's level course, it's up to us to understand the grammar rules he's teaching us.
I come home exhausted everyday.
Ironically, I'm probably more qualified than most Americans would be to take the course. My high-school Spanish taught me how to pronounce the vowels and how to learn a spoken language quickly. My time studying Latin taught me how to break a word into parts to deceiver the meaning. My 5th century BC Attic Greek has a very similar grammatical structure, and taught me not to panic when the professor tells me that there are 6 different ways to say the word "the" in German.
In America, learning a foreign language is not a priority. Although some others may be different, my high school does not require students to take a foreign language to graduate. My college required only two semesters.
Compare that to students in other countries. In Germany, students begin to study English as early as 5th grade. Many students are offered the option of starting another language in 7th grade. A study called Europeans And Their Languages found that the majority of Europeans (55%) believe that children should start learning their first foreign language before the age of six!
In the year and a half that I've been overseas, I've been constantly impressed by how many of my fellow college students are fluent in at least two languages. Many speak more. My friend Michael is capable of writing university level papers in both English and Danish--although his mother tongue is Polish. Another friend shifts effortlessly from Italian to German, English, French and Portuguese. The 6 year old daughter of one of my professors happily chatters away in English and Maltese, and she's nearly fluent in French.
Many Americans probably believe it doesn't matter, because English is understood almost everywhere. But, it matters more than we think. Most international businesspeople speak and conduct business in English, but most European companies want job applicants to be at least bilingual.
In Asia, there are more (non-native) English-speakers than in the whole of the US and the UK--but there are significantly more people who speak Mandarin than any other language in the world. As China rises in prominence, isn't it logical that Mandarin will become much more widely spoken too? This won't hurt the Chinese, and will only slow down many people in the EU. But what about the Americans who never learned how to learn a language?
Everyday, I feel how hard it will be for us to catch up. My already bi-lingual classmates absorb the German lessons much more rapidly than I do. They articulate more clearly, they read faster, they understand directions better, and sometimes they even explain things to me in English when I'm completely lost. For me, learning German is exhausting--and the grammar is only manageable because of my dead-language background. The only other American in my class has a much worse time.
That's why I find it funny when we Americans adamantly debate the steps we can take to make sure our students don't fall behind. Unfortunately, we already have.
Hopefully we Americans as a whole will not be left out of the global conversation as frequently as I am left out of daily conversations right now!
Update: Andrea at Wise Bread recently wrote a good post on this topic called "Want a Good Job? Learn to Speak Ghetto." It's worth reading, so I urge everyone to go check it out.