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Lesson 6.16

World Language Learning:
The Cure for Ugly Americans

For American kids, the hardest language in the world is…

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The United States is a tossed salad of languages.

California's population has grown through immigration from all over the planet, and its students reflect that linguistic diversity. America's multi-lingual character has everything to do with the recent history of immigration.

Unfortunately, it has rather little to do with the education that children receive in schools.

Learning a language takes time. But few K-12 school systems in the US seriously embrace the work it takes for students to become proficient in a language other than English. For most American children, mastery of a second language is simply not expected.

This is quite a blind spot.

Patricia Kuhl Kuhl studies language acquisition in babies. She has found that children learn the sounds of language very early, and that the aptitude for identifying the sounds of language declines sharply with age. Her TED Talk on the subject is well worth watching.

Over a period of just a few decades, China transformed itself from being economically isolated to being vitally connected to every part of the world market, including America. A focus on language instruction was a big part of that transformation. Arabic-speaking countries have become vitally important to America, too. But few American students even have the option to learn either these languages during their pre-teen years, when they are linguistic sponges.

California requires zero years of world language instruction in elementary and middle school.

Research on language and brain development finds that until about age six or seven, children are “linguistic geniuses”, innately capable of discerning and reproducing the sounds of language with perfect fidelity and comparatively little effort. It is incredibly important to start learning a second language when young, because this ability steadily declines with age.

Most nations require foreign language instruction in several elementary and middle school grades, because that's when kids are good at learning them. Schools in America, unfortunately, tend to leave world language instruction to middle and high school years. California requires zero years of world language instruction in elementary and middle school.

Many California school districts require students to study a world language for at least one year, though the state does not require it. To qualify for a public four-year college in California, students must take at least two years of world language in high school.

Signs of Change: The California Seal of Biliteracy

Even though California's original state constitution was written in both English and Spanish, public opinion has not always embraced multilingualism. Proposition 227, passed in 1998, required that most classes in California be taught in English. This initiative was overturned by another, Proposition 58, in 2016.

When the ban on bilingual education went away, demand for multi-lingual teachers skyrocketed. School districts with large numbers of English Language Learners are recognizing the bilingual advantage and creating more dual language learning opportunities, a topic we explore in more detail in the Ed100 blog.

California is attempting to embrace second language learning. In 2018, the state passed a law to use the term "world language" in the education code. This change is a nod to the huge diversity in the state and an effort to be more inclusive. This change recognizes that there really is no “foreign” language in California.

The state took another symbolic but meaningful step to highlight the value of knowing multiple languages by creating The State Seal of Biliteracy. This program recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English.

In 2018, more than 55,000 students earned this seal on their diploma, but many more should have. Districts have been slow to implement the program. By 2030, the California department of education hopes to expand to 150,000 students through the Global California 2030 program. To request seals for graduating students at your school, ask your school district.

Speaking American

Almost all countries in the European Union require foreign language study beginning in elementary school

Outside the United States, multilingualism is widespread. In China, for example, students learn their local dialect as well as Mandarin and, more recently, English. Almost all countries in the European Union require foreign language study beginning in elementary school, and many choose English. Hey, why not just expect the rest of the world to learn English? (Yes, that was rhetorical.)

America has a long history of "assimilating" immigrant groups, including linguistically. Preserving the language skills that immigrant children bring with them has not been consistently viewed as important. For decades, "foreign" language instruction, when offered at all, was considered an academic elective.

For English speakers, some languages are more difficult to master than others. According to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, it takes an average English speaker 2,200 hours to become proficient in Mandarin or Arabic, but only 600 hours to learn Spanish, French or Italian.

And the hardest language in the world for native English speakers? Japanese. The written language uses ideograms based on Chinese characters, but the characters can be pronounced in different ways depending on context. It also features nuances to express humility and respect that flummox many Americans.

Next Steps

Learn more from these sites:

  • The California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) provides great resources for parents and teachers.
  • Some school districts in California have developed robust dual language pathways, including San Francisco Unified.
  • Speaking in Tongues: 4 kids. 4 languages. 1 city. 1 world is a documentary that follows four San Francisco students as they become bilingual.
  • The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages offers tips for parents who want to advocate for language programs in their communities.
  • Looking for ways to support your student learning a second language? Check out this article from GreatSchools.
  • More research on the benefits of bilingualism from the New York Times: The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals.

Updated August 2017
October 2018
March 2019
December 2019
December 2022


Children learn languages most readily and fluently before puberty. How many years of foreign language instruction does California require schools to provide for students in grades K-5?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 6:03 pm
California leads the nation in awarding students the Seal of Biliteracy..

The report linked below shows the comparison with other states as well as proficiency levels required to qualify.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 October 12, 2021 at 5:05 pm
Sadly, there is so much misinformation about learning a second language. All languages are difficult to learn well. No one is any harder to learn than any other. Each has its special morphology, syntax, and unique structures.
user avatar
David Siegrist1 October 12, 2021 at 4:57 pm
Adults can learn other languages quite as well as children, given the right environment. Just check with the US Defense Language Institute in Monterey. At the age of 22, I studied Thai there and became totally proficient in speaking, reading, and writing Thai. Studies comparing children’s ability to learn another language with that adults continue to neglect the question of available time to learn the language. Unless, as in the case of the DLI, the learner is immersed six hours per day, five days per week for a year in a small class of learners (six at most) and forbidden to speak one’s native language and subjected to a rigorous, robust curriculum delivered by native speakers of the target language then of course there is a great difference in outcomes.
user avatar
Sheila Melo May 29, 2020 at 1:49 pm
Spanish should be required in California from elementary school. It isn't even necessary to demand full bilingual education immediately. My kid's elementary school had Spanish enrichment and appreciation of culture in elementary school which prepared him for formal Spanish classes.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 31, 2019 at 2:32 pm
For those not lucky enough to live in a school district that provides bilingual opportunities, check out this blog on how your child can benefit from being bilingual with tips on learning a second languages

user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 17, 2019 at 12:46 pm
Any of us who learned a language young (French in my case) knows that adding other languages even if not related to the first (ie German if you started with any Romance language) is easier as one reader commented already. I would add that I started early because my mother came in to my second grade class to give us some French (I believe it started formally in 3rd or 4th grade). And at the elementary level, it can be training the ear with the accent by learning songs, simple dialogues and so on; grammar can come in gradually as it does with English language. I don't happen to be a fan of immersion as a way for most to learn languages in school, as I feel strongly that knowing your home country language very well is critical. So I prefer the some every day approach (I don't think that qualifies as "intensive")--having your ear attuned 5 days a week accumulates wonderfully.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 14, 2018 at 9:08 am
"Research suggests that linguistically integrated dual-immersion programs work best for ELs. These “two-way” programs enroll roughly equal numbers of native English speakers and native speakers of the other language."
The Atlantic
user avatar
Lisette October 3, 2017 at 4:38 pm
I fully support children learning a different language early on; starting in Kindergarten. At that age, children are sponges and learn rather quickly. In Europe, kids graduate high school knowing at least three languages. Based on my own experience, being fluent in Spanish tremendously helped me learn the French language in school.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 27, 2016 at 3:08 pm
Take a closer look at the research on the brain benefits of bilingual education. An article from NPR--How Learning Happens-- finds good news in the areas of attention, empathy, reading, school performance and engagement. There are also some long term benefits-- protection against cognitive decline and dementia.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 15, 2016 at 11:50 am
Thanks everyone for reading this closely and spotting some glitches in this beta version.
The choices in the review question above will be modified to add one more option.
That option will be 4. zero. Then you will be able to select the right answer.
user avatar
Pepe October 12, 2016 at 10:37 pm
This is the second questions on here that has no answer.
After reading the lesson I would like to know what the correct answer is
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 3, 2016 at 11:49 am
California public schools or districts may award students a "seal of biliteracy" on their transcript or diploma in recognition of proficiency in two languages.
user avatar
Angelica Manriquez February 29, 2016 at 6:40 pm
How can elementary school have these opportunities?
user avatar
Julissa Salamanca March 27, 2015 at 12:28 pm
Our school district has a Two-Way Immersion Charter School to offer the option for students to learn Spanish. It's an amazing program!
user avatar
Paul Muench January 18, 2015 at 7:13 am
Of all the skills that schools can teach, this seems like the one set of skills that genuinely deserve to be called a 21st century skills.
user avatar
Gavin Payne June 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm
As if the justification for being multilingual wasn't enough that it helps kids be more academically and culturally adept in our global economy, recent research underscores that fluency in multiple languages increases core cognitive functioning.
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