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When I traveled to Spain my junior year of high school, I was shocked to find that I did not need to speak fluent Spanish in order to survive. In fact, I barely spoke any Spanish at all for those ten days in Barcelona. Only on rare occasion would I have to abandon my native tongue to place a food order or ask for the bathroom, but for the most part, the Spaniards I encountered spoke English. Of course at the time, I was relieved that I didn’t have to step too far out of my linguistic comfort zone, but looking back at the experience now, I must say there is something wrong with that picture.

I went to Spain, expecting to immerse myself in the Spanish culture, yet I found instead that people in Spain worked to accommodate my American culture and language. If a group of high-school Spanish students traveled to the United States on a class trip, would I be able to accommodate their language as they did mine? Sadly, probably not. And I have a feeling I am not alone.

Millions of foreigners flock to America each year, yet the majority of us Americans expect that these travelers speak English. “They’re in America, so they should speak our language,” we might say. But why is it that this same expectation does not apply when we Americans vacation in Europe, or South America, or just about any other part of the world?

Bilingualism is emphasized in a large number of countries, but the U.S. is not one of them. According to the 2006 Census, a mere 15-20 percent of Americans are considered bilingual, as compared to 56 percent of Europeans. Historically speaking, this deficit in American bilingualism is tied to the immigration movements preceding World War I. As millions of non-English speaking immigrants flocked to the U.S., our nation responded by pushing forward a major nationalistic movement. This movement included a sole focus on the English language. Foreign language classes became less prominent in elementary schools as citizens shifted more and more toward monolingualism. While we may have shaken off this Americanism movement, the foreign language department has continued to suffer.

Language programs in high schools throughout the country are constantly facing budget cuts, and elementary level programs are nearly nonexistent. The bulk of these classes have become optional nowadays, but generally speaking, could it be that students just don’t want to learn foreign languages anymore? Why should we? Sure, Honors Spanish 5 may look good on the resume, but aside from that, there’s really no need for Americans to be fluent in any other language beside our own.

It’s the classic let-them-come-to-us attitude.

Maybe this ‘America is the Greatest Country in the World’ mentality isn’t exactly detrimental. As of now, we might actually be able to get away with so much as a few high school foreign language classes. But as we enter the world of a rapidly growing, interconnected economy, bilingualism is becoming more and more pertinent universally. The linguistic world is so quickly blending together. English might win the gold medal for languages right now, but Spanish is very closely tailing us. It’s time for us as a nation to get off our high horse and start accommodating other nations in the ways they accommodate us.

By changing the social climate surrounding foreign language, we can hopefully learn to place more value on bilingualism. Let’s break that stereotype of ignorant American travelers—who wants that label, anyway?

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