English Alone not Sufficient for Dynamic World

Thoughts from Abroad is a periodic column written by an Exponent staff member studying abroad. The column serves to illustrate differences in culture, issues and perspectives observed by the way-faring student. Currently, Elise Byle is studying in Spain.

“Me gustaría un burger.” The word sounded weird. Dropped in the middle of my conversation with the Spanish cashier, the English word pronounced with a Spanish accent sounded unnatural and forced. But he nodded and smiled as he typed in my order. The restaurant serves a variety of Spanish food, including paella and an overabundance of tapas, signifying it is very clearly a Spanish restaurant. However, sprinkled throughout the menu are English words or phrases, reminding me how fortunate I am to speak English as my first language.

There is no official global language. But throughout Europe, the stop signs all say “Stop”. Wi-Fi is always Wi-Fi. Despite the best effort of linguists to preserve the integrity of global dialects, languages are integrating English into the daily jargon. About 1.5 billion people in the world speak English but only 375 million of them are native speakers. Around 75 percent of the English speaking population learn English as a foreign language a sign of how important English has become.

In at least 20 European countries, studying a foreign language is mandatory for at least a year. Most begin studying their second language between ages six and nine. About nine in 10 secondary students in the EU are studying English as their second language. English crosses borders far easier than Portuguese, Polish or Romanian. On a continent where the countries are small enough to travel with relative ease, the dilemma of communication arises far more easily in Europe than it does in North America.

This sets Americans at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to languages. There is no pressing need to learn another language. Only one in four Americans can hold a conversation in a foreign language. As Americans, we are incredibly lucky to grow up speaking the language used by pilots, captains, businesses, et cetera. But that does not mean we should abandon the pursuit of other languages. Studies have shown that learning another language makes people smarter. It improves perceptiveness, memory, multitasking abilities and decision making. Bilingual individuals tend to get better standardized test scores as well as staving off mental diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia for longer than their monolingual peers.

Aside from the mental benefits, while the majority of U.S. citizens speak English, this might not always be the case. The U.S. Census Office estimates that by 2050, about a third of US citizens will be native Spanish speakers. Additionally, the U.S. has no official language. The “you are in America, speak English” excuse doesn’t work. The English vocabulary is working its way into the cultures of other countries but other languages are increasingly present in the U.S. Learning another language should be required throughout the entire U.S. educational system. It gives one a better understanding of the world and of the complexities of English. It creates a sense of compassion for those learning English as a foreign tongue when one realizes how difficult it can be.