Can Learning a Foreign Language Be a Privilege?

How many languages did you get a chance to learn while you were in school? One? Two? Could you choose between a few?

Did you have the option to learn one at all?

Chances are your experience with learning a foreign language as a kid depends on a number of factors that you had little to no control over, like where you grew up, where you went to school, what your native language was, what your parents thought, etc. If you were lucky, you may have had a lot of opportunity to learn or a lot of encouragement.

But that seems strange, doesn’t it? Are there really that many differences and does it even matter?

Most kids don’t remember much of the language they learned in school anyway.

What’s the point?

When I was a kid, the small Catholic school I went to taught us Polish until we reached the 4th grade. I only remember one word. No one took it seriously.

But once I hit 4th grade, they taught us Spanish. The only problem was our Spanish teacher changed so often and we reviewed the basics so many times that I was eager to switch to French in high school.

Nowadays, a number of U.S. schools have become quite serious about Mandarin. I’ve even met someone just a bit older than me who learned American Sign Language in elementary school when she was a kid.

On the other hand, plenty of U.S. schools and colleges have lost foreign language programs altogether. Low-income schools, many of which are filled with black and minority students, might be lucky enough to offer a good foreign language class, but many are not. Deaf children can still be denied access to any sort of sign language at all.

Meanwhile, some people argue that foreign language classes aren’t even necessary., which means some kids have the chance to learn Spanish, French, German, Mandarin, or ASL while others are lucky to learn how to read.

The trouble with missed opportunities

Of course, as language learners, we know that learning doesn’t end once we leave school. Adults are more than capable of becoming fluent in a foreign language.

So, why does it matter whether school-age kids are given the opportunity to learn multiple languages?

From additional job opportunities to an increased appreciation for other cultures to overall cognitive benefits, giving kids access to other languages provides them with a lot of advantages throughout school and later in life.

As an adult learner, I’d like to point out one of the most obvious benefits: it’s a lot easier.

I’m not talking about our brains being able to learn languages better at a certain age. I mean, as school-age children, we’re already expected to be learning things. We aren’t working to make rent or mortgage payments. We spent most of our time around resources that are meant to help us learn. Plus, we don’t have to pay for it.

As adults, we need to make a conscious effort to take time out of our schedules for language learning. Many times, we need to pay tutors, buy books, pay tuition fees, or at least spend gas money or bus fair to get ourselves to the library.

For those of us who make language learning a priority, we have no problem justifying the time and money we spend. For those of us without the time or money, learning another language becomes just another thing that isn’t going to happen.

What can we do?

What are we going to do tonight Brain? The Same Thing we do every night, pinky, try to take over the world. - What are we going to do tonight Brain? The Same Thing we do every night, pinky, try to take over the world.  Pinky and the Brain

The truth is that there’s no easy solution here. Changing the way kids think about foreign languages and access opportunities to learn them requires help from schools, educators, parents, and even governments. Unless we want to try taking over the world, learning a language is simply going to be a privilege for some.

But we can continue to do some of the same things we’ve been doing as a community of learners. We can encourage each other to keep learning and keep increasing the number of multilingual people in the world.

We can also lend our support to efforts that boost education. We can support our local libraries and help share free resources for those who want to learn. We can encourage young learners by sharing accurate representations of what multilingual people around the world look like (because they aren’t all white westerners).

Lastly, we can spread the word that learning a language isn’t some impossible task. With the right tools and motivation, anyone can do it.


Featured Photo by Santi Vedrí on Unsplash


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