So here's a joke I tell many of my classes:
Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
Q: And what do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Q: What do you call someone who speaks only one language?
This never fails to get a chuckle, especially since my students are usually working in a second language. But things are humorous because they have a grain of truth. And the truth here is that language education is not one of the things we value in the American education system.
I recently taught a class of middle school students from China. These kids all attend a foreign language school in their country. Not only have they been studying the usual curriculum kids their age study, they have also been studying multiple foreign languages since elementary school. Thus, I had students in the class who were studying English, German and Japanese, or English, French, and Spanish. There was even one who was studying Korean as one of their languages.
I've run across schools like this before. I had heard of a K-12 school in Russia that started students learning English (along with Russian) as early as kindergarten. They learned the harder content (science, math) in Russian, but other subjects were taught in English or Russian. When the students reached 3rd grade, French was added to the curriculum. Now the students were studying two foreign languages and their own tongue as well. In about the 8th grade, Spanish or Mandarin. For most students, this is the last foreign language they learn. The school takes advantage of the students' knowledge of English and French in science classes. The school can access materials from NOVA, the BBC or French television to use in their content courses.
But wait, there's more. Ireland teaches Irish Gaelic, a minority language, starting in primary school and running all the way to the end of high school. This is in every school nationwide. (There are a few Irish immersion schools in the country, but relatively few.) Recently, they have started teaching other European foreign languages in the last two years of primary school. So students throughout the Republic of Ireland start on a learning a second language early in their academic careers, and, in some schools, are starting a third well before they get to high school. And Ireland is not alone in teaching students in the public schools nationwide foreign or second language. In China, Norway and Korea, students in elementary school start learning English as part of the curriculum in public schools. In fact, the approach to teaching English in Korea has shifted from grammar-translation to one requiring communicative competence.
In the US, foreign language is still mostly taught beginning in 7th grade. And yes, we have gotten better with our offerings. Mandarin is beginning to be offered in more schools. There are a few immersion schools in the country, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Few are the places that offer foreign language instruction in primary school (unless it is ESL for immigrant students, but this is dependent on the state.) California, a majority minority state, has outlawed bilingual education in the public schools. Hawaii, the only state in the nation with two official languages, does not offer Hawaiian in all its public schools, only a few charter immersion schools.
We are throwing all of our efforts at STEM (or in some places STEAM) programs. Somehow, it seems a lot of the rest of the world does that and finds a way to instruct their children in two or three languages other than their native one. There is a lot of research to suggest that the longer one is exposed to a language, the better one learns it over time. And while that implies the younger a student is better (called the Critical Period Hypothesis or CPH), (Krashen, 1985, Cummins, ??) the research supporting it is mixed. However, most of this research is in a second language environment, that is learning the target language where it is the dominant language in the environment (e.g. English taught the US to non-native speakers is English as a Second Language). But as more places in the world offer foreign languages in primary school, we may learn more. (Foreign language instruction is a language taught in a school where that language is not in the environment. For example, English taught in China to non-native speakers is English as a Foreign Language.)
Will all students who begin studying a foreign language in elementary school become perfectly fluent in that second language? No. So why do it? Why teach languages with small distributions, like Gaelic or Hawaiian? Because there is enough research to show that people who have been exposed to a second language have an easier time learning a third or a fourth. Culture, history, identity are all tied up in those languages as well. Not spending the time and energy on teaching foreign languages to elementary school children is just another way we shoot ourselves in the collective foot. Isn't it about time we started getting caught up with the rest of the world?