At the beginning of my junior year of high school, I became acquainted with two foreign exchange students from Serbia through the drama program. For three months of after-school practice, I listened to them rehearse their lines with foreign accents and speak to each other in their native language and was, I hate to admit, fascinated. As a high schooler from the Midwest, I had very little experience with people from other countries. It was upon getting to know those people I began to realize how small my own personal world really was in comparison to the one I had yet to see.
The point of this little story is to show how many young people, not even just those from the Midwest, can grow up ignorant of the wide variety of people and cultures that exists beyond where they grew up. Of course, the United States has areas that are higher in diversity than others, but many still do not grow up to fully appreciate a culture other than their own. Sometimes it is difficult to find connections with other cultures, whether they live in the same city as you or not. But there is one link that can at the very least serve as a building block in connecting multiple cultures: language.
Schools in other countries recognize the importance of knowing more than one language and teach their students to be bilingual from a very young age. It is considered almost necessary to learn English, but it is also helpful, and normal, to learn other languages as well. One of my friends from Serbia spoke English, Serbian, French and picked up the basics of Spanish quickly when she studied it in the United States. She also told me she wanted the next language she learned to be German and that she would begin studying when she got home, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
In most schools in the United States, learning a language is considered upper level learning and not taught until late middle school, with the exception of Spanish numbers and letters that may be taught in elementary schools. This philosophy usually does not work. The "critical period hypothesis" says that there is a certain age range (somewhere between 3 and 7) where children are able to learn a language through mere exposure and the result is native-like fluency. But once the critical age range has been passed, this ability fades. Because of this reason, schools should begin to teach foreign language to their students through exposure in early elementary school. Learning a second language at a young age will be easier for the student and, therefore, less of a chore as they try to advance their knowledge of the language when they grow older.
Knowing a foreign language has many benefits. The curriculum of language learning typically involves lessons on culture as well, allowing the student to relate better to a person who is from another part of the world. Being able to create this cross-cultural connection is important later on in life as well when that student joins the workforce. As I mentioned previously, the rise in technology has created the ability to connect with people across the globe. By being able to speak a foreign language natively, not sparingly, Americans will be better equipped to compete in today’s global economy. Bilingual education is a characteristic that should be widespread in the United States’ education system. Learning a foreign language is no longer a hobby, but an essential building block for cross-cultural connections in today’s world. If taught early, children will not struggle with mastering a foreign language but will be able to confidently compete in a global economy.