About 4.5 million college students – globally – will study abroad in another country every (non-pandemic) year. From this they develop global thinking – also known as “transversal” skills. That term refers to those who have the skills and knowledge to participate in and pursue opportunities in globalized societies, a forward looking 21st century mindset with diversity and cultural sensitivity and multi-lingual skills.

That raised a question in my mind – how do others study languages and at what age do they start?

Students in Europe learn foreign languages in school at a much higher rate than their American counterparts. They also tend to learn more languages throughout their education due to national mandates. ….

Across Europe, 91% of students in primary and secondary school were studying English in 2017 – more than all other foreign languages learned combined by a large margin, according to data from Eurostat, the statistics arm of the European Commission. The next-most studied languages in European schools are French, German and Spanish, each garnering no more than 15% of students participating in 2017.

Source: Most European students learn English in school | Pew Research Center

Not only do 91% of European students study English, but in 20 out of 29 countries, students are required to study at least one additional language besides English during their K-12 education. A majority of Europeans can converse in at least one additional language besides their native language.

By comparison, just 20% of all K-12 students in the U.S. take a foreign language class. Per Pew Research, learning a foreign language is basically required of all students in the EU but “not so in America”.

At what age do they begin studying English in the EU? Elementary school.

Language courses are generally not available to U.S. students until high school – meaning students start at age 15 to 16. Their study options, in most schools – are limited, sometimes to a single language option.

25% of US elementary schools offered a foreign language course (but only a fraction of students enrolls in those classes), 58% of middle schools and 91% of high schools. Because of many required courses for students at U.S. schools, many students are unable to take any language courses until high school and then, for only 2 years, so they can complete other required courses for university admission.

Thus, few U.S. students have useful foreign language skills. In fact, of Americans who say they speak a second language “very well”, 89% learned that language from their family, not schools.

Thus, the bottom line is that U.S. public school students are not learning useful foreign language skills.

What is the right age to start leaning another language?

Recently I read that a large research project found best language learning occurs if started before about age 10, in order to achieve fluency.

Thus, Europeans and others in the world learning English are doing far better as they start the process when much younger. Conversely, in the U.S. students start learning another language at age 15-16. The same study found that language learning may more difficult after age 17 – although that may be due to multiple factors, including entering work life, other demands on one’s time, less access to language learning opportunities – or perhaps brain changes as we get older.

Over the years there have been studies suggesting that age 6-7 (or other young age) is best to start language study, while others have suggested 11-13. Regardless, the U.S. first offers language courses to most students only ages 15 or older. We are doing this all wrong.

The bottom line: U.S. language study is all wrong, very poor, and will limit the ability of U.S. citizens to participate, thrive in and pursue opportunities in a global economy.

In a globalized world, the U.S. is behind and falling further behind every year. There are others who have suggested that the 21st century will be owned by Asia, especially China. I would go further to note the U.S.’s heyday is passing by now – and we are doing little to stay in the race.

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  1. […] wrote a post on my Travel blog about how a lack of language training in the U.S. is harming the U.S. ability to […]

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