I studied German for more than five years, all together.
I took a little in middle school, but really I started in high school and continued on to take two semesters of German as a freshman in college. I did really well in those classes, regularly earning A’s, with the occasional B, particularly in the college class, which was much harder than high school if I remember right.
After all of that time and effort, mostly what I learned was not actually German. I did become extremely familiar with the parts of speech and what different clauses are called — and I can do a reasonable job pronouncing German words even if I don’t know what they mean — but the extent of a conversation I could have in a foreign language was a friendly greeting and, to be perfectly honest, I’ve forgotten how the proper grammar for that goes, so I won’t butcher it here.
My experience isn’t typical, according to Pew Research Center, not because I didn’t retain any of the language, but rather because I took the classes at all.
According to a study released Monday, only 20 percent of primary and secondary students in the U.S. learn a foreign language. Pew compares the U.S. numbers with Europe as a whole, saying it drastically outpaces us when it comes to learning a foreign language, with a median of 92 percent of students learning at least one foreign language.
According to Pew, learning a foreign language in Europe is nearly ubiquitous, mostly because many European countries have national-level mandates requiring it. While data wasn’t available for the United Kingdom, Ireland or the Republic of Macedonia, most of the European countries listed have 98 percent or more students studying a foreign language, including seven — Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Austria, Romania and France — that have 100 percent of students studying a foreign language.
The country with the lowest overall percentage, Belgium, has 64 percent of primary and secondary students learning another language.
Again, the U.S. has 20 percent of K-12 students learning a language.
For most Europeans, Pew says, the language they’re learning is English.
If you’ve ever talked to a exchange student, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m sure it’s mostly the kids who are top of the English classes who sign up to spend a year in the U.S. honing their skills, but for all their insistence that they’re not very good at speaking the language yet, they sure kill it compared with my abysmal foreign language skills.
Of course, that’s only natural because by that point, they’ve been learning English for between six and 10 years. Students in Europe typically start studying a foreign language between the ages of 6 and 9, and keep at it every year. In comparison, I started at age 13, took a break for a semester and completely forgot everything except “Hallo” before I started it up again the next year.
Wisconsin students rank pretty high compared with other states, coming in at the third-highest percentage with 36 percent of K-12 students learning a foreign language.
Part of the low numbers I’m sure is because we don’t start teaching foreign languages as soon as those European countries.
La Crosse School District requires French, German or Spanish in seventh grade, according to its website. Then the languages are electives for eighth-graders. It also offers Chinese at the high school level, which, frankly, is awesome, plus opportunities to visit countries where those languages are spoken — again, awesome, if you can afford it, and that definitely helps fluency.
Some of this is starting to change. I know this is something school districts are sensitive to. I remember even back when I was in elementary school they tried to at least expose us to a little Spanish, even if we weren’t required to actually speak any of it.
Regardless of whether you are fluent in the language when you graduate or not, I firmly believe there are serious benefits to studying one. You get a glimpse into another world, one adjacent to the one you live in, with parts you recognize for sure, but also one where people have a completely different point of view. Learning a language lets you learn about a different culture that has different norms and priorities. It lets you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, which I think we could always use more practice in, even if you never manage to say more than a few phrases.
My mother is the one who forced me to take a foreign language. Even though I didn’t retain much of the language, I’ll always be glad she did.
Jourdan Vian can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @Jourdan_LCT.