Second Language Proficiency Must Be Required

Jan Alex

Most NYU students are familiar with the classic stereotype of the American tourist. A fumbling visitor unable to speak the native language harassing each and every person they see on the street in a desperate attempt to find someone who can speak enough English to direct them to the Tour d’Eiffel, the Colosseum or sometimes even just their hotel.

When I visited Paris with my family over the summer, I was confident that I could avoid falling into the stereotype. After all, with six years of French classes under my belt, I felt prepared to interpret and speak on behalf of the whole family for the course of the trip.

However, I quickly realized that just like my past experience in France, this visit would not be any easier. The fast and fluid sentences of true French speakers bore little resemblance to the painstakingly enunciated recordings I studied in classrooms, and I might as well have been studying a language other than French. The three extra years of class time and practice that separated me from my previous trip to France had not changed a thing. I was utterly unprepared to conduct a face-to-face conversation with a native French speaker.

My inability to communicate was not the only thing that had not changed. Almost every person I encountered spoke English far better than I spoke French, and this was not just the case for adults. Both this past summer and during my time spent in France as a part of my high school’s travel program, I was consistently amazed at how well the French youth read, spoke and understood English.

The sad truth is even the best foreign language programs here in the United States simply cannot be compared to their European or Asian counterparts. Although we are a nation that prides itself on its educational institutions, we are falling behind in one of the most important fields of academia foreign language proficiency. In fact, statistics released several years ago showed that only 18 percent of American students can speak a language other than English, as compared to 53 percent of students in Europe.

More recently published findings by the Pew Research Center have confirmed the trend that learning a foreign language is a must in Europe, but the opposite is true in America. The reason, the findings suggest, is that our schools simply do not put enough emphasis on learning a foreign language. Of the 25 percent of American adults who self-reported an ability to speak a second language, almost 90 percent reported having learned that language in a childhood home. Only about 7 percent reported learning the language in school.

This deficit our country faces in foreign language proficiency is one that should demand far more attention and concern than it currently does. In order for American students to remain cultured in an increasingly interconnected world, the U.S. needs to take pro-active measures to increase the foreign language literacy of students. If we do not act fast, we will simply be left behind.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. Email Jan Alex at [email protected]



  1. It’s interesting that your recent experience is nearly the exact same as my first trip to France in 1999. After 14 years of classroom French (yes fourteen) I was treated like a clumsy fraud in Paris. I remember finding McDonalds around the city and taking safe haven while sobbing over french fries at my failure to communicate.

    It’s fascinating- and horrifying- that American schools have not implemented a conversational and practical approach to second language learning by now. What will it take to change? My guess is that children who truly want to be bilingual (or more!) will have to learn on their own.


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