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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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Californians speak many world languages, but not because the state's schools are good at teaching them to kids.

California's multi-lingual diversity has everything to do with the recent history of immigration.

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

For language learning, earlier is better

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.

Patricia Kuhl studies language acquisition, especially 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.

America has very low expectations for language learning

English is the world's most widely-spoken second language. Over a billion people in the world have learned to speak it, partly as a historic result of British imperialism and partly as a result of economic good fortune. America's unofficial, low-effort strategy for global communication has been "you learn English, then we can talk."

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

Learning a language takes time and effort at the right time of life. Unfortunately, few school systems in the US provide what 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.

Few American students even have the option to learn world languages during their pre-teen years, when they are linguistic sponges. California requires zero years of world language instruction during elementary and middle school.

This is quite a blind spot.

Multilingualism is normal outside the USA

Outside the United States, multilingualism is ordinary. For example, most nations in Europe require foreign language instruction during several elementary and middle school grades.

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

Many countries that were once considered developing nations transformed their economies partly by making multilingualism a national educational priority. China, for example, transformed itself from being economically isolated to being vitally connected to the world market, including America. Students throughout China learn their local dialect as well as Mandarin and, more recently, English or other languages.

New language expectations for Americans

Many have argued that Americans need to learn how to communicate across a language barrier in order to keep up.

Brilliant young people from around the world learn English so they can apply to colleges in America. Historically, this inflow of talent has benefitted the U.S. massively. Countries around the world are improving their college programs, though. The case for students to come to the US for an expensive college education is becoming less clear. According to the U.S. State Department, what was once an almost totally one-way flow of students into the U.S. for college is already becoming more complex. Some young Americans are finding that it may make sense to learn other languages so that they can apply to excellent, less expensive colleges outside the U.S.

American students who cannot communicate in other languages may find their educational options constrained. For example, China has begun to reverse gears in its strategy for international communication, with a greater expectation that others should learn to speak Mandarin, and Chinese student should redouble their focus on Chinese history and culture.

Will technology make language learning unnecessary?

Translating from one language to another was once a very difficult process involving big books printed in a tiny font. Today, it is already fairly easy to get a decent translation of most anything with the help of a smartphone or computer. In 2023 the Ed100 team began making heavy use of ChatGPT to convert English material to Spanish. (Yes, a real human tweaks the final edits, but A.I. technology is very helpful in the process.)

For people who are motivated to learn a language, the tools for doing so are poised for big improvement. For example, practicing a language in conversation with an A.I. tutor makes a lot of sense. In effect, every student will have access to a virtual tutor.

For those who are less motivated to become proficient at a language, the advance of language technology may have the opposite motivational effect: Why should I do the hard work of learning a language if my phone can translate for me whenever I need it?

Some languages are harder than others, especially for adults

For American English speakers, some languages are more difficult to master than others. According to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains US diplomats, an average adult English speaker needs 600 hours to become proficient in many European languages including Spanish and Italian. More difficult languages take up to 2,200 class hours in their program.

Among the languages that the institute categorizes as super-hard (yes, really), the thorniest of all for native English speakers is probably 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 degrees of familiarity, humility and respect that flummox many Americans. (The Korean language shares this challenge, but has the advantage of an easy-to-learn writing system.)

It's worth acknowledging that this is a significant number of hours. For context, there are 180 days of instruction in a typical school year. Of course, young children can learn languages much quicker than aspiring diplomats can, if they feel motivated.

California's ambivalence to multilingualism

California's original 1849 state constitution was written in both English and Spanish, but public opinion has not always embraced multilingualism. In 1998, California voters rejected bilingual education by passing Proposition 227, which required that most classes in California public schools be taught in English. Voters overturned that initiative by passing another, Proposition 58, in 2016.

When California's ban on bilingual education ended, demand for multi-lingual teachers skyrocketed. School districts with large numbers of English Language Learners strained to offer more dual language learning opportunities, a topic we explore in the Ed100 blog.

The state's unclear stance toward multilingualism goes deeper. World language study is not required for high school graduation by the state of California — from the state's perspective it's an elective. But school districts have the authority to add their own graduation requirements, and many do so. Students who want to qualify for a public four-year college in California must find room in their class schedule to take at least two years of world language. Some California school districts split the difference, requiring one year.

The California Seal of Biliteracy

The state took a symbolic step to highlight the value of multilingualism by creating the nation's first State Seal of Biliteracy in 2008. Now available as an option in virtually all states, this program encourages districts to recognize 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 the 2021-22 school year, California recognized 57,582 students across 1,242 high schools with this seal — about 13% of diplomas. Many qualified students are missing out. The California Department of Education hopes to expand this number to 150,000 students through the Global California 2030 program. To request seals for graduating students at your school, ask your school district.

Call it world language not foreign language.

America has a long history of "assimilating" immigrant groups, culturally and linguistically. Preserving the language skills that immigrant children bring with them has not been consistently viewed as important.

In 2018, California formally adopted the term "world language" in the education code. The change is meant to convey that no language is “foreign” in California.

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
June 2023


How many years of world language instruction are required for elementary school students in California?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 29, 2023 at 6:42 am
Progress starts with data! New program will for the first time find out what languages kids in pre-K speak at home.
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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