Should all Students in the United States be Required to Take a Language Other Than English?

Mary Kuchta

South Dakota State University


Language education has been the center of many controversies in the United States for the past century. Foreign language learning has never been high on the nation’s educational agenda but as the world becomes more global in its connections; the need to communicate with speakers of other languages at work and in social situations increases. In school systems, foreign languages are not commonly considered part of the core of courses that all students must take. The question of whether or not students should be required to study a language other than English has been a question asked by many school districts in the United States. There are some that believe studying a foreign language isn’t greatly important in the educational system, where others believe that more emphasis should be placed on foreign language study in the United States educational system.

Throughout the history of education in the United States, the study of foreign language has maintained a presence. General rationale for inclusion of foreign language study in the United States resulted from the five major wars or conflicts in U.S. history: World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam war, and the cold war (Lantolf, 2001). During these times of war, it has enjoyed more popularity than at other times; yet it has never obtained the status that foreign language study has held in most other countries in the world. In most European countries students have opportunities and requirements to learn a second and even a third language beginning in childhood (Sigsbee, 2002). So, why doesn’t foreign language study hold more importance in the United States Education system? Should all students in the United States be required to take a language other than English?

There are different reasons why foreign language study has struggled in the Unites States education system and isn’t viewed as a necessity. There are many Americans who can go through their everyday lives without ever needing to speak another language than English. We live in a society where we expect everyone to speak English; except for parts of the southwestern United States and some larger cities, but most of us can live out lives in a totally English world. And even if we leave the U.S., we will find English speakers in most places because the last two successive major world powers in the world, England and the U.S., spread the same language and similar cultural influences in many parts of the world (Sigsbee, 2002). The idea of speaking just English in the United States has been an ideology by many people throughout history. In 1914, President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house” (http://en.wikipedia/wiki/English-only_movement).

Many advocates of only speaking English, state that English has always been the common language, a means of resolving conflicts in a nation of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Reaffirming the preeminence of English is a means reaffirming a unified force in American life. English is an essential tool of social mobility and economic advancement. Immigrants should be encouraged to join in, rather than remain apart, and to government, cautioning against policies which could retard English acquisition (Mei-Yu, 1998). Most English-speaking people have historically possessed a certain conceit about their language. They have presumed its nobility and have had the nasty habit of thinking less of those persons who did not speak it exactly as they thought it should be spoken or could not speak it at all (Unks, 1983). This thought of speaking one language in the United States is not the only reason why many believe that learning other languages in school doesn’t have much importance.

In school systems, foreign languages are not commonly considered part of the core of courses that all students must take along with other common core studies such as English, Mathematics, and science (Sigsbee, 2002). Some states and districts say testing requirements held by NCLB may discourage efforts toward foreign language studies and many schools across the country have discontinued bilingual education, or feel they are forced to do so, because of the accountability requirements ( Since language studies don’t hold high importance, students that do take foreign language don’t study it continuously. Some may learn some foreign language in elementary and then not again until their junior or senior year in high school or not until college. There is not that continuous learning and when the students don’t use the information, they loose it. So, many think that foreign language study has no practical value. It achieves poor results for the amount of time and effort expended and is forgotten in a short period of time, it is uninteresting, and entails poor instruction (Lantolf, 2001).

One of the real challenges in foreign language education is training primary and secondary teachers so that we have a sufficient number of teachers and they have the requisite knowledge of language and culture as well as highly developed language-teaching skills (Sigsbee, 2002). It is difficult to find someone well-trained in one or more languages that is willing to go into teaching. It would be the best if the individual has been trained as a teacher, but that is very rare (Ging, 1994). Along with the question of finding qualified teachers for a foreign language comes the question of what language will be taught in the school district. There are 171 languages that are defined in the Federal Register of the United States Congress. The United States Government recognizes only five languages as critical languages that are perceived to be of strategic importance. These Languages are Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian. But, the most common languages being taught in schools today are French, German, Latin, and Spanish (Ging, 1994).

While Americans have accepted, to a degree, the study of some languages that have a relationship to English, they have been slow to embrace languages that bear little or no resemblance to English. The mindset is set on the foreign languages of French, German, and Spanish. Over 90 percent of the enrollments in foreign language study in the United States are in languages that represent only 14 percent of the world’s population (Ging, 1994). So, the question is what good does it do to study a language that may not be used by the student?

If a person wanted to learn another language, there are popular (and false) promises that can stand in the way of public understanding of how a foreign language is learned. Frequently in magazines, advertisements appear about how you can learn a foreign language at home, on your own speed, and without pain. These are unrealistic and create a popular aura that there is an easy way to learn a foreign language, and you can do it yourself, should you ever need to (Sigsbee, 2002). This plan magnifies the idea that students do not need to learn a second language in school. They can learn it on their own if needed.

Some may believe that Foreign Language studies don’t hold high importance, but others believe that it has great importance. Here, bilingualism or trilingualism is seen as a skill that only the most privileged residents have the opportunity to master. Meanwhile around the globe, it’s the norm for students to be learning one or even two other languages as early as elementary school. Students in Western European countries often learn English, French, and then a regional language; the vast majority of schoolchildren in Asia learn English as well as Mandarin Chinese in addition to their native Hindi, Japanese, or Korean languages; students in Central and South America learn English and Spanish alongside their indigenous tongue (Morgenstern, 2009).

Many other countries have realized the importance of learning other languages. Globalization demands that successful businessmen and women speak at least one other language fluently in addition to their own. The United States will simply not be able to compete on the same level as other world powers if American businessmen and women cannot communicate with at least some of their international partners in their native languages. The United States has prided itself on being a “melting pot” of citizens. Today, the descendants of those citizens would like to refuse this opportunity to other families exactly like theirs. The U.S. cannot truly welcome foreign immigrants if it cannot make an attempt to teach those immigrants’ native languages in our schools and use them in our workplaces (Morgenstern, 2009).

The prime minister of Japan asked the question: How many American businessmen have learned Japanese? How many Japanese have learned English? There are about 10,000 Japanese businessmen in the United States, and virtually all speak English. There are about 1,000 American businessmen in Japan, yet very few of them speak any Japanese (Unks, 1983). The United States relies more and more on foreign sales, yet we send our salespersons into the world market with the severe handicap of being unable to speak their client’s language. Sometimes this inability to speak or understand another language can lead to undesirable results.

Pepsi Cola, seeking to capture the Chinese market, came up with this catchy slogan “Come alive with Pepsi,” By the time it had been translated into Chinese, it read, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead” (Unks, 1983). Obviously they were not successful with the sale. Another example was when General Motors sought to sell its Nova in South America, oblivious to the fact that no va in Spanish means “it doesn’t go.” They had to change the name before they made a sale (Unks, 1983). So, instruction in foreign language makes good economic sense.

Our gross national inadequacy in foreign language skills has become a serious and growing liability. It is going to be far more difficult for America to survive and compete in a world where nations are increasingly dependent on one another if we cannot communicate with our neighbors in their own languages and cultural contexts. The inability of most Americans to speak or understand any language except English and to comprehend other cultures, handicaps the U.S. seriously in the international arena. Paralleling our professional language needs, foreign language instruction at any level should be a humanistic pursuit intended to sensitize students to other cultures (Unks, 1983).

Along with being able to communicate and understand other cultures and languages outside the United States, comes the ability to communicate with people in the United States as well. Immigrants come into this country realizing how important it is to learn English. Over 95% of the people in the United States already speak English and over 85% are native speakers. Immigrants are experiencing a faster shift to English today than there was in prior generations. According to a 1985 Rand Corporation study, 95% of first generation Hispanic immigrants learn English; of their children, 100% speak English, and 50% of those children speak only English (http://en.wikipedia/wiki/English-only_movement). Many of these immigrant students do learn English but still feel alienated. Some spoke of the alienation they felt from their native-speaking co-workers, while others recounted stories of being the butt of jokes, and being ignored because they sounded different. The more uncomfortable learners feel that the more they use a new language, the fewer interactions they are likely to have with people (Tse, 2001). If foreign languages are taught in schools, students may develop an understanding of other cultures and would become more tolerant of the differences. This communication and understanding of other people in one’s own country can bring about national unity.

The study of foreign languages also shows a number of other benefits outside of communication with others. Early foreign language instruction benefits students cognitively and academically. Bilingualism fosters the development of verbal and spatial abilities (Morgenstern, 2009). Studies have confirmed and expanded upon earlier research which showed that students who begin to learn another language in childhood, score better on the measures of cognitive functioning than do their monolingual peers. These students have equaled or outperformed those in control groups on standardized achievement tests, even when these subjects were taught in another language or when time has been “taken out” of the school day to make time for foreign language instruction. Students who begin foreign language instruction when they are young will have time to develop the levels of proficiency that Americans will need to participate effectively in the global economic and political arenas in the 21st century (Met, 1991). Graduating high school seniors with two or more years of foreign language showed significant superiority in performance on achievement tests in English when compared with nonforeign language students (Morgenstern, 2009).

Foreign Language study has a “humanizing effect” on students because it entails understanding of other cultures primarily through analysis of their literatures (Lantolf, 2001). Language and communication are at the heart of the human experience. The Unites States must educate students who are linguistically and culturally equipped to communicate successfully in a pluralistic American society and abroad (

Foreign Language study in the United State is a controversial issue. Being an educator, I believe it is the job of our education system to prepare each student the best we can for their future. As communication among people increase and globalization become more of a way of life, we need adjust our educational system and curriculum to best fit the needs of the students.

So going back to the original question; “Should all students in the United States be required to take a language other than English?” I can understand both viewpoints. There are students that will never encounter the need to speak another language, but at the same time, there are students that will need the skill of another language. More immigrants keep coming to the United States and globalization is growing. People from other countries are communicating and doing business at a much higher rate than in the past. But, as discussed, the quality of foreign language education needs to also be looked at. If students learn a language, but don’t learn it at a constant rate and use it, they will forget it. So, there needs to be more discussion and brainstorming of what is best for the students and how can we, as educators, provide the needs of the students of the 21st century.


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language. National Standards For Foreign Language Education.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language. Research in Support of Elementary School Foreign Language Learning.

English-only movement. http://en.wikipedia/wiki/English-only_movement

Ging, Diane F., (Winter 1994). Teaching Critical Languages in Public Schools. Theory Into Practice, 33(1), 46-53.

Lantolf, James P., Sunderman, Gretchen. (Spring 2001). The Struggle for a Place in the Sun: Rationalizing Foreign Language Study in the Twentieth Century. Modern Language Journal, 85(1), 5-26.

Mei-Yu, Lu. (1998). English-Only Movement: Its Consequences on the Education of Language Minority Children. ERIC Digest.

Met, Myriam, (September 1991). Foreign Language: On Starting Early. Educational Leadership, 49(1), 88-89.

Morgenstern, Claire. (April 2009). Ignoring Foreign Languages in U.S. Schools a Disservice. The Tartan.

Sigsbee, David L., (Spring 2002). Why Americans Don’t Study Foreign Languages and What We Can Do About That. New Directions Fore Higher Education, 117, 45-53.

Tse, Lucy. (2001). “Why Don’t They Learn English?”. New York: Teachers College Press.

Unks, Gerald, (October 1983). The Perials of a Single-Language Policy. Educational Leadership, 41(2), 18-23.