The value of early exposure to foreign languages

Naia Willemsen, Staff Writer

In eighth grade, walking into my first day of French, I remember having fantasies of being fluent and walking through France, speaking perfectly and understanding everything.
And yes, maybe then I knew it wasn’t realistic, but now? I know that even if I take a few more years and study in college, I’ll never be able to speak fluently.
But if I’d started learning in elementary school? Maybe I’d be fluent.
The reason why we don’t start learning these languages early is hard to say. In Europe, most children start learning a second language much younger, around the age of six, according to a 2012 Eurostat report. Some countries start even earlier: in Belgium, students start learning a foreign language at age three.
Yet in America (or at least, here at Liberty) we don’t get the opportunity to take foreign languages until the end of middle school or high school.
Even though the US is one of the most industrialized countries in the world, it’s also among the minority of industrialized countries where students don’t start learning foreign languages in elementary school: 21 of the top 25 most industrialized countries in the world have students start learning foreign languages then.
Perhaps it’s due to the fact that there are no national mandates for foreign language learning in the United States; states and school districts set these requirements. In Europe, however, most countries have national mandates requiring students to learn a certain amount of years of a foreign language. This national mandate would mean consistency across the country—and likely age requirements for when we start learning languages.
Overall, the benefits of learning foreign languages outweigh the negatives, such as improving memory or listening and communication skills in one’s first language. People who speak multiple languages are also able to compete for better jobs. It’s hard to understand why most American students have to wait until middle or high school to start studying a second language.
And while students can still pick up new languages fairly quickly and easily until the age of 17, it’s almost impossible for them to speak fluently unless they start learning before the age of ten, according to a 2018 MIT study.
So maybe there’s no hope for us, the mediocre Spanish, French, or Japanese students who started learning in our mid-teens. That doesn’t mean we should give up; we can still learn. Our potential to learn is more limited, but we can still learn.
But if we’d started learning when we were younger, there’s no telling how fluent we’d be.