By: Meghan Neuland
A U.S. Department of Education study stated that less than 8 percent of U.S. undergraduates take a foreign language course and foreign language degrees make up for only 1 percent of undergraduate degrees in America.
Alexandra McCormick, 22, is part of that 1 percent.
McCormick is a senior at WMU majoring in German with a double minor of Russian and communication studies. She said her elementary school offered German, and only German, as a foreign language. She studied that language from first to sixth grade then again when she was a sophomore in high school.
“I spoke German and a little bit of Russian so I figured I’d keep going until I got my degree,” said McCormick. “The professors are amazing. They are all very helpful, as are the language clubs on campus.”
McCormick was president of the German club in 2010 and plans on graduating this April. She said she is going to Germany after graduation for 13 months, then plans on returning to the U.S. in hopes of working for an international advertising company.
Foreign languages education and international studies is necessary in America for preparing students for future leadership roles, says the Committee for Economic Development, a non-profit, business lead, policy organization.
According to the Committee, American students must obtain a well-rounded education that includes superior language learning if America is going to succeed in the 21st century. It says that other countries are becoming multilingual and the U.S. is falling behind leaving American students linguistically illiterate and culturally incompetent.
According to the 2000 U.S. census, 9 percent of Americans can speak a second language while more than 50 percent of Europeans speak one or more foreign languages.
“Most other countries, if not all, start teaching English to children at least at the junior high level, but often before,” said Cynthia Running-Johnson, foreign language department chair and professor of French at Western Michigan University. “By the time they’ve graduated from high school, they’ve had years of English and usually another language as well.”
Running-Johnson said that WMU’s foreign language department offers nine different languages and 13 study abroad programs.
Knowing a foreign language helps with job opportunities, the understanding of language as a whole and the understanding of different cultures.
“By learning the language, you learn aspects of the culture,” said Running-Johnson. “There are so many ways in which knowing a different language ends up influencing your life.”
Running-Johnson said that the United States is one of the few countries that don’t teach a foreign language throughout grade school. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 31 percent of U.S. elementary schools report teaching a foreign language. Seventy-nine percent of these schools focus only on introductory material rather that achieving overall proficiency.
According to Running-Johnson, many international businesses and government organizations throughout the world use English most commonly as their means of communication.
Lauren Egle, 25, who is from Chicago, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Truman State University of Missouri in 2010 and moved to Kalamazoo to become a medical interpreter.
“My job consists of interacting with people who I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t speak another language. I’ve met a lot of interesting and amazing people doing what I do.”
She said that studying abroad in Spain for 10 weeks really opened her eyes on how pompous Americans are in their ideas about language.
“Almost everyone I met in Spain was working on their fifth, sometimes even sixth, language,” said Egle. “Communication is the number one activity humans participate in every day and not being able to communicate because of a language barrier is frustrating.”
WMU student and Russian native Yulia Leonov, 21, came to America when she was 14 years old. Now working toward her communication and women studies degree, she said she had no problem fitting into the American lifestyle through language.
“I was already fluent in English by the time we moved to the States,” said Leonov. “They were teaching us English words in first grade and progressively as we went from one grade to the next.”
Leonov said that it was a normal concept to be learning multiple languages while in school in Russia. It came as a surprise to her that her new American friends weren’t doing the same thing.
“There was definitely a strong sense of hesitation when I would speak Russian to my parents in front of people who couldn’t understand us,” said Leonov. “I think in a way people felt uncomfortable because they’ve never heard Russian before. They felt inferior because it was something different, something new. In Russia, people wouldn’t even think twice if they heard someone speaking English, they would jump right into the conversation.”
Jenna Maxwell, a 25-year-old grad student at WMU, took her degree in Spanish and put it to work. She moved to Madrid for a year right after her graduation in 2010, and is now working for a broadcasting company right inside the city called Abby Broadcasting Productions.
“Learning Spanish has changed my life,” said Maxwell. “It has given me the opportunity to travel and live out my dreams of going abroad. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go across seas if I didn’t know the language.”
Maxwell came back to Kalamazoo in early January to spend some time with her family but will return to Madrid early summer. She said that she is trying to learn French so she can go to Africa next year on a mission trip with her church in Madrid, and teach young children English.
“Language is a beautiful thing and the more we know, the better off we are,” said Maxwell.