When I travelled to Europe for the first time, I was shocked when I learned that so many people I met overseas spoke more than one, two or even three languages. In the U.S., I was accustomed to the handful of Spanish speaking people and the occasional individual who could speak French, German or some other language, but it was astonishing to meet people who could speak four languages fluently and were learning another. The experience made me question my relationship with foreign languages in the U.S. and wonder why Americans are so much less exposed to culture and language than in Europe.
Statistically, the numbers back up what I had experienced. According to the 2010 U.S. census, approximately 20 percent of U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home. In Europe, the percentage is significantly higher with an average of 60 percent of citizens who can speak two or more languages with some countries with up to 96 percent of residents who are bilingual.
Of course, much of the discrepancy in the number between the U.S. and Europe is due to the increased exposure Europeans have to cultures and language because of the smaller geographic sizes of the countries and their proximities to each other. In terms of size, it would be like if each of the 50 states had their own language and moving from state to state meant an increased necessity to communicate with others through language. In the EU, the open border agreements among most of the nations also facilitates the hassle-free movement of people from one country to the next, making it easier to spread languages across borders. While in Europe, I felt entitled because almost everyone I came into contact with spoke English, even if it was their third or fourth language. As an American, I wanted to stop assuming that everybody understood my language. I wanted to be immersed in a new culture where everything, including the language was foreign to me, but everywhere I looked, someone spoke English.
In the American school system, most high schools require some form of foreign language study, but there is a plethora of benefits to learning and speaking a foreign language that extend far beyond the reaches of the classroom.
As a student, learning a new language can boost brain power, improve memory, enhance decision making skills and even improve other areas of academic performance, according to the Eton Institute. Additionally, knowing one or more foreign languages is a great way to set oneself apart on resumes, applications and in the professional or career field. With the expansion of the global business community, the ability to communicate in multiple languages is becoming more and more important.
Many people assume that English is the official language of the U.S., but it is, in fact, not. Though street signs, advertisements, menus, ballots and more are most commonly printed in English, America needs to get off their high horse and branch out to learn and communicate with others.