Americans lag in learning foreign languages

Immersion skills and other programs try to combat the trend
Tuesday, January 4, 2011 | 4:27 p.m. CST; updated 11:22 a.m. CDT, Thursday, April 14, 2011
The U.S. Census Bureau released a report in April that showed almost 20 percent of people more than 5 years old spoke a language other than English at home.

COLUMBIA — At 6 years old, Travis Worsowicz, walked through the door of his kindergarten classroom ready to learn English — and Japanese.

Today, Worsowicz, a junior broadcast major at MU, is preparing to spend next semester in Japan where he will be the first student to participate in the newly established study abroad program through the Missouri School of Journalism.

La Petite Ecole programs

La Petite Ecole will have a Winter Open House from 2 to 4 p.m. on Feb. 26 for those interested in learning more about the school. Here is a look at the programs it offers:

Toddler Program (age 2)

Tuesdays and Thursdays: 9 a.m. to noon, $1,580 per year

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays: 9 a.m. to noon, $2,370 per year

Preschool Program (ages 3 to 4)

5 mornings per week: 9 a.m. to noon, $3,950 per year

Pre-K/Kindergarten Program (ages 4 to 6)

5 afternoons per week: 1 to 4 p.m., $3,950 per year

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"Anytime you can say you are the first to do something it's pretty cool," he said.

Worsowicz attended Yujin Gakuen Elementary, a Japanese immersion school in his hometown of Eugene, Ore., until fifth grade.

When he was a child, he said, his father explained that they sent him to the school because they knew people who spoke French and Spanish, but no one who spoke Japanese.

They also "thought it would be funny to have a white kid know Japanese," Worsowicz said.

His father later told him, "it was an additional challenge to keep you focused in school and not screw around as much."

There are a growing number of language immersion schools in the United States, including one that was founded in Columbia called La Petite Ecole, which teaches children French as a second language at an age when children's brains are most compliant.

Statistics, however, show that language instruction in regular schools is actually decreasing, and relatively few Americans know a second language. Scholars have spent years studying why Americans seem to disregard the importance of learning languages. While they have developed theories and posited potential solutions, the future of language learning in the United States remains hazy.

Linguistics in America

Since 1997, the percentage of elementary and middle schools that offer foreign language courses has fallen significantly, from 31 percent to 25 percent at the elementary level and from 75 percent to 58 percent at the middle school level.

However, the decline in elementary schools appeared primarily in public schools, while private elementary schools teaching foreign language remained roughly the same at 51 percent.

The percentage of high schools teaching foreign language has remained at about 91 percent.

This information comes from a nationwide survey of public and private schools conducted in 2008 by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, the number of language immersion schools designed to teach a second language to English-speaking children and young adults has actually increased.

Since 1962, 367 two-way immersion programs — schools that pair native English speakers with those who speak another native language — have developed in 28 states, including Washington, D.C. And, as of 2007, 263 total and partial immersion schools have been established, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics website.

"The younger the learner, the more likely the acquisition of a second language will be facilitated…” Adel Safty wrote in the Canadian Journal of Education. Linguistic ability shows the greatest development between the ages of 4 and 8, she wrote.

While the number of people who speak a language other than English at home is still relatively small, it has more than doubled over the past 30 years, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey released in April.

The largest percentage of people who speak a foreign language are between 18 and 40. The 5 to 17 age group trails closely, according to the report.

"Certainly at the universities there is a desire for English speakers to learn different languages," said Maria Beebe, a self-employed consultant who helps universities develop international programs by either attracting foreign students or providing an international experience to American students. 

But, among those 41 and older, the percentage of people who speak a second language decreases.

"For some people who have not learned languages in their youth, when they become adults it is more difficult," she said.

Beebe, who is from the Philippines, specializes in the study of language and spent a decade at Washington State University doing international development work, including managing the program Afghan Equality Alliances, which involved working with higher education institutions in Afghanistan.

"There are Americans who want to learn other languages because it provides more opportunity and sensitivity," Beebe said.

Classroom immersion

Nine 3- and 4-year-old children sit in a circle on a blue rug with multicolored numbers lining the edges. The French song coming from the classroom probably is incoherent to most people, but not to these children.

They are just a few of the 47 students enrolled at La Petite Ecole, a French immersion school off Fairview Road in western Columbia that was founded by Joelle Quoirin in 2005. The school was established to teach children between the ages of 2 and 6 a second language while their minds are most malleable.

Up until the late 1990s, it was believed that the window of opportunity for learning a second language was open until adolescence, Quoirin said. But later studies of the brain, through the use of MRIs, revealed that the window actually shuts closer to the ages of 6, 7 and 8.

A second language learned before that age is stored in the same part of the brain as a person's first language. After the window closes, however, the brain stores a second language separately, making grammatical mistakes more likely and a native-like accent more difficult.

During the school day at La Petite Ecole, teachers strive to speak only French to the students, Quoirin said.

"It is very rare when teachers speak English to the children," she said.

She said that while the children are learning a second language, they also are learning academic and life skills.

"Some people think, 'Why go there only to learn French?'" she said. But, they learn skills they would acquire in a regular school "with the added bonus of learning a language."

She said the benefits of learning a second language are too many to enumerate.

"The primary (benefit) is to open the brain and have the children more ready to learn," she said. "It helps them to learn languages as a whole."

Quoirin said that from the first time a child steps into the classroom until the time he or she leaves, there is a noticeable difference. Pointing to a little girl in the corner, Quoirin recalled how the child spent her first month at La Petite Ecole crying on a pillow. Now, she is doing math and making progress in all areas of learning.

"I am amazed at what kids can do," she said.

The American mindset

Although immersion schools have popped up throughout the country over the past 50 years, only 19.7 percent of those surveyed speak a language other than English in their households, according to the Census Bureau report. 

In comparison, in the European Union, which is composed of 27 different countries and 23 official languages, 56 percent of Europeans speak a language other than their mother tongue, and 28 percent speak two foreign languages, according to a 2006 European Commission survey. The commission is preparing to do a more up-to-date survey where it will test students' listening, reading and writing skills in languages other than their first language.

Only 8 percent of Europeans surveyed consider language learning unimportant, according to the report.

Many journals and books have been written by various scholars and people who have devoted their lives to the study of linguistics and the lack of language diversity in America.

This American language mindset can be traced back to the establishment of the original 13 colonies, said Joshua Fishman, a retired sociolinguistics professor at Stanford University.

While there were people who spoke languages other than English in Colonial times, the languages were discounted because they were deemed unnecessary, Fishman said. Early Colonial life was very dependent on materialistic success. 

“It made us rigid, and we never lost it,” he said. “The almighty power is still almighty.”

Fishman, 85, has been immersed in language his entire life. He grew up in a Hebrew and Yiddish-speaking household with parents who were language activists, and he later learned Spanish. He has written a number of books and has devoted much of his time to studying minority languages around the world.

He said he believes the mindset that Americans hold toward other cultures comes from their intense focus on reaping more rewards than other countries.

He said Americans concentrate far too much on "instrumental values," such as making more money and having a better ability to wage and be engaged in warfare. That, he said, causes them to disregard what other cultures have to offer.

This emphasis is at the root of the American tendency to look negatively on aspects of other cultures, including language, he said.

“If you can’t value cultural heritages and values, then you are not going to have much of a positive attitude toward languages,” Fishman said. “It is a great pity for people who do not love culture like opera and literature. It is a great pity for yourself.”

Recalling his childhood, Fishman said his father often would ask at the dinner table: "What have you done for the language today?"

Fishman recalled his typical response: "I tried to speak Yiddish to Louie on the street, but he doesn’t know it."

"That is OK, but you have to remind him of it," his father would say.

Compared to countries in Europe, which have a special language dynamic because they are surrounded by various cultures, America is physically separated from them, only adding to isolationist views.

“(Americans) don’t think in cultural terms,” Fishman said. “I think (Europe) does think in cultural terms, and it does value language for its literature and history, for things that are just junk for most of Americans.”

Most Europeans can speak three or more languages because it is something they value and emphasize, he said.

“The only language that exists really in the world is English as far as we are concerned," he said. "This is not a language-conscious society.”

When Americans go abroad as tourists, they often avoid other languages by staying in hotels with other Americans or spending their trip on tour buses, he said.

“That is where the concept of the 'ugly American' comes from, because they are ugly out there,” Fishman said. “Going out and buying souvenirs and socializing with each other and not focusing on the culture.”

The irony, though, is that America is more dependent on other countries than it has ever been before, he said. Fishman believes there would have to be a long-term threat for Americans to change their mindset toward learning languages.

Americans tend to emphasize language only when immediate threats force them into contact with other cultures, Fishman said. The last time that happened was during World War II.

"It is a vicious downward cycle," he said.

When Americans begin to learn and appreciate different languages, they may begin to feel less alienated, Fishman said.

"You only get to loving languages by having languages around you," he said.

It appears that may be happening as we speak.

A possible explanation

Beebe said she has noticed an increase in different spoken languages.

"In the past 10 or 15 years, I hear more languages spoken, especially around airports and metropolitan cities and ethnic restaurants and groceries," she said.

This also could be due to the increase in the number of people who have immigrated into the country. During the past decade, more than 6.8 million immigrants have become naturalized citizens, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

With them, they bring their possessions, expectations, culture — and language. While it is important for them to learn English, their own language can often be just as important in establishing unity in a new home.

"For some of the older, more established immigrants," she said, "they may want to maintain their identity by finding people who speak their language."

In some ways, America is catering to these new cultures, particularly Spanish.

"Just in terms of announcements at airports, there is more Spanish, and even on employment sites," Beebe said. "You have a choice of English or Spanish, even some Vietnamese."

"I think it is good for various groups to maintain their languages. It helps their identities," Beebe said. "It is good for (English speakers) to learn some of these other languages. It should be a two-way process."

Utilizing learned skills

As Worsowicz packs for his imminent semester in Japan, he looks back on his time in the immersion school.

"I liked being able to do something at 7 years old that even my 40-year-old parents couldn't do," he said.

As he progressed in school, he began taking classes in English as well as Japanese, such as grammar and reading.

"We did basically the same thing in each class, just one class you did it in Japanese and one class you'd do it in English," Worsowicz said.

At the end of fifth grade, his class took a two-week trip to Japan as a way to "test out your Japanese," Worsowicz said. Each student stayed in a Japanese family's home and went to school with that family's children. 

"That was the first time I had gone anywhere for two weeks," he said. "It was cool to be in someone else's family."

Worsowicz transferred before middle school but met with a tutor once a week to converse in Japanese.

"It was a good way to not forget the Japanese we had learned," he said.

Worsowicz studied Japanese for two years in high school then for another two years at the University of Oregon.

During his first year at MU, he focused on journalism, taking a break from Japanese. However, his passion for the language surfaced once more after he spent the summer before his sophomore year taking classes in Japan. The next year, he decided to enroll in Japanese again.

When he was approached by the study abroad office about traveling to Japan for the semester, Worsowicz jumped at the chance. 

"I know I'll have a good time there," he said. "That is one thing I can honestly say."

While he does not know exactly what he wants to do or where he will be after he graduates, he wants to put his Japanese to work.

"I want a job where I can keep sports as a part of my life, but I also want to keep Japanese in my life," he said. "I want to mix the two, but honestly I don't know what that would be."

As he looks back on his experiences with Japanese language and culture, though, he realizes he has an unusual talent. Worsowicz said that while English is becoming a more universal language, it is important that Americans try to broaden their language skills.

That way, he said, they can "communicate as much as possible with as many people as possible."

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Paul Allaire January 4, 2011 | 5:45 p.m.

This is a well written article. I wish there was information on the pie graphs indicating what portion of the total population of each age group was represented.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum January 4, 2011 | 7:11 p.m.

One obvious reason we lag is because we are not compelled to learn other languages for job opportunity (for the most part). Foreigners learn English because it is valuable for them to do so in terms of money, not because of some inherent cultural superiority.

At any rate, Jay Nixon's failure to do anything for education in this state won't help us get better (at least in Missouri) any time soon.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 4, 2011 | 8:11 p.m.

I would think that the remainder of the world spoke more languages even if we didn't count those who learned English as a second language.

(Report Comment)
Lina Krause July 10, 2011 | 2:01 p.m.

Looking for expert help in this subject, fighting to have my son in an Immersion Spanish program, to preserve his heritage language and culture. Ex is American, with not knowledge in Spanish Language.
Next month I am going to court to appeal a decision made a year ago on regards my son's education (he is 6 years, going to 1st. grade this coming fall 2011) I am a Latin women/divorce/sharing custody. My ex won the case last year, because he owns a home, witch according to Mediator and Judge, represents more stability for our child. The outcome: Child was studying in my ex district School, where Spanish is not taught AT ALL. I found a Spanish Immersion Program in my Ex-husband's District School. I have collect a lot of material about the education importance in the case of a Heritage Speaker, but still looking for more. Obviously I am not a professional on this field but I still have to defend my point of view in court by my-self. Could anybody give me a hand?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 10, 2011 | 2:42 p.m.

@ Linda Krause:

An argument for learning a second language is available on the web site called "" That might be a good place to begin a search.

More specifically:

Additional topics are listed on that site.

I wish I had the opportunity to learn Spanish in school, as I ended up working in Spanish-speaking countries. And that's one argument: you never know as a child what requirements you may need as an adult.

(Report Comment)

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