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The Soapbox Chronicles: Foreign Languages In The US

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

 – Nelson Mandela

::Steps onto soapbox.:: Ahem. Is this thing on?

In my building, there is this cute old Spanish speaking couple that I have come to love. The woman is kind enough to bring any packages she finds of mine to my door, and the man is so friendly and strikes up conversation with me in Spanish when we pass each other in the hallway. I rarely have the opportunity to practice my Spanish anymore, so I love our talks and also appreciate his patience if I stumble with my grammar. It reminded me of how envious I was of many of my classmates who already had an arsenal of various European languages under their belt. And there I was, perpetuating the stereotype that Americans can’t speak other languages fluently outside of English. Grr-eat.

It’s not that I don’t know any other languages. I studied Spanish for six years throughout high school and college and even did a semester abroad in Madrid where all my classes were in Spanish. That being said, I would prefer to have another immersion or intensive course as a refresher. And I know a lot of other people who would fall into this same category, perhaps because we didn’t have the opportunity to learn foreign languages from a young age like many of our European counterparts. Of course I’m not talking about Americans who have grown up speaking a second language at home. But to put it in perspective, only about 18% of Americans say they speak more than one language, versus 53% of Europeans. Which begs the question, “Why hasn’t the US done more to change this?”

I think there are several factors for this. One recent issue is school budget cuts, where educators are forced to take out entire departments that don’t seem as necessary. As of 2008 only 25% of elementary schools in the US taught foreign languages (I couldn’t find more recent data but would love to hear updated stats.) So that means the best options for children who aren’t learning directly from their parents would be through private school educations or tutoring, or online apps which I will get to at the end of this post. And while the numbers are higher for foreign languages taught in high school and college, think about the greater potential kids have for fluency if only they could start learning from elementary level. And then think about how that could radically change things for the country as a whole. Oh, another reason? Some may say that English is the language of the global economy so there’s not as much of a need to learn other languages. And true, Americans are fortunate to grow up learning English because from what I hear it is a challenging foreign language and you can get around pretty well if you know it. But the economy is always changing, and with developing countries becoming bigger who knows if English really will stay the dominant language. Regardless, with learning another language comes learning about a different country’s lifestyles and getting excited about wanting to see more of the world. It can lead to increased partnerships with entrepreneurs in other countries and more global career opportunities, or even just more confidence to explore and travel more. Undoubtedly it would result in less ignorance towards other cultures, and let’s not forget the pure joy of just being able to order a meal in the local language when you are traveling.

Earlier this month I read an article from Fast Company that mentioned how Washington legislators are trying to push computer programming as a language for high schoolers to meet college requirements. Partially because they feel that the current system of learning a foreign language at a high school level is not as productive, and a good part of their reasoning also supports the idea that language should be taught in elementary school where its more effective. While I am all for pushing computer science in high school, I wouldn’t want kids to opt out of the foreign language requirement either. I can say with certainty that studying Spanish in high school had a snowball effect in my life which resulted in having some amazing international experiences and being passionate about travel and other cultures. Even though the current system is flawed, there should be more emphasis on learning other languages in today’s super connected world.

But I digress…

To be honest, this post was supposed to be about fantastic online (and mostly free!) resources for learning foreign languages as an adult and even as a child. So I’m going to get to it, and also get back to Duolingo to continue practicing what I’m preaching.

::Steps off soapbox::


Online foreign language resources:

1) Duolingo – I use this one so I can vouch for the addictive and fun nature of this app. It’s FREE and the website says that 34 hours on the app is equivalent to time spent taking one university course. And how cute is their mascot??

2) Livemocha – Also free! This website is great because it relies on its community to help each other with their learning. For example, you can post an exercise of you speaking or writing online and native speakers can offer advice. Pretty valuable if you’re looking for some legit feedback.

3) Pimsleur – I also used this to learn some basic Italian before moving to Italy. It’s all audio and A LOT of repetition which is great for long commutes (although you will be repeating phrases out loud so you may want to avoid this on your subway ride home.)

*Bonus – Just heard about its sister app, Little Pim, with videos, books and apps for kids up to age 6. Perfect with what we were just talking about!

4) Babbel – Some people say Babbel is the most effective online app out there. It has similar tools to Duolingo like vocabulary and pronunciation, and a huge community as well. The first lesson in any language is free, and then there’s a monthly fee for unlimited courses.

5) Lingorami – Another free app. I haven’t tried this one yet, but from the reviews it seems like if you’re the type to be addicted to Candy Crush then you will like this as well. Right now it teaches Spanish, French, Portuguese and English and uses addictive games to keep you interested and learning. Considering its ease of use , it may be a good choice if you’re looking for something to help you brush up on your skills when you have sporadic downtime.

6) Memrize – Also free!  Memrize also has rave reviews and a component for teachers to use it in class. Oh, and for all your competitive types out there, it also lets you compete with your friends. Now I’m intrigued.


Parents! Soon to be parents! Aunts, uncles, godparents… you get the idea. I also found this great article that gives language learning app resources for those that want to teach their children new languages.


Currently reading:
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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