Too many Americans are missing out on the benefits of multilingualism. While roughly half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, only 20% of Americans can speak a language other than English fluently. Of that 20%, more than half were born outside of the U.S. American students rarely gain foreign language fluency in public schools, as opposed to Europe, where dual- or multi-language learning is embedded in primary education. Language learning at a young age has been proven to promote language retention into adulthood and provide a host of other social and academic benefits. As part of the 1% of American students who gained fluency in a new language through school, I can directly attest to its lifelong benefits.
From kindergarten through fifth grade, I attended a French-immersion public magnet school. At language immersion schools, students are expected to speak exclusively in a given language while learning all of the standard subjects that would be taught at a typical American school. I learned science, math, history, and art just like any other student, but in French. We began supplementary English classes in the second grade to learn grammar and spelling, but our main curriculum was rooted in French. Although I had no prior exposure to French before kindergarten, by the time I reached third grade I was fluent.
Since leaving a French-speaking environment in elementary school, my ability to speak French fluently has diminished slightly, but the experience has continued to benefit me in my academic and professional pursuits. In high school, I took Spanish for my required language classes and found it to be very similar to learning French. Picking up on the similarities between the two languages allowed me to excel at Spanish and speak the language with greater confidence. However, I’ve noticed that even today, my French retention is stronger. I believe this is largely due to learning the language at a younger age.
Socially, I’ve used French to build relationships with native French speakers that wouldn’t be possible if I only spoke English. I think of my current neighbor, who is originally from Morocco and spent time living in France, who instantly lit up when he found out that I could speak in a language more familiar to him. Or the French-speaking high school exchange student I hosted from Mali, who felt more comfortable learning English with me knowing she could ask for translation support. The level of connection I’ve been privileged to experience with others has helped me learn about different cultures and expand my worldview — an opportunity all Americans should be afforded.
Professionally, I’ve been able to apply my language skills in translation services. I once interned at a crisis center in Charlotte, North Carolina that received clients from all over the county. We had clients who immigrated to the U.S. from French-speaking countries and spoke little English. Out of a staff of more than 30 employees, I was the only one who could translate and communicate with them. In public service, multilingual staff can help connect non-native English speakers to necessary resources.
As the immigrant population continues to grow in the U.S., more employers are placing greater value on bilingualism as a preferred skill. In fact, workers in the U.S. with fluency in more than one language tend to earn more on average. Learning another language as early as possible sets students on a trajectory for greater earning potential and aligns with workforce needs.
The popularity of language immersion schools has increased significantly over the last few decades, yet there are not nearly enough schools to meet demand. Many native and non-native English-speaking families are seeking language immersion programs because of their positive effects on student academic performance. Studies have shown that elementary school students in language immersion programs tend to have higher math test scores and demonstrate similar levels of proficiency in English Language Arts as non-immersion students. Language immersion schools have also been effective at closing achievement gaps, with Black and Latino students performing on par with — or often outperforming — their white peers.
Language is a source of connection that far too many Americans take for granted. I was lucky to attend one of more than 337 language immersion elementary schools in the U.S., an opportunity that every family should have. Learning French has opened new worlds and exposed me to a variety of cultures and people. Language immersion schools are a necessary tool to produce more well-rounded global thinkers that can communicate effectively with people from different backgrounds.
Given the academic, social, and professional benefits of being bilingual, language immersion schools should be a priority for K-12 school districts in the U.S.
Saidah Rahman completed an internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on education policy. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University.