Being bi in America


Yep, I'm bi. Bilingual, I mean.
Well, technically.
My enthusiasm for learning a foreign language quickly fizzled after high school. I took five years of Spanish in high school and one semester in college, and that is about as far as I have gotten.
Some high schools have actually dropped their foreign language requirements for graduation and others are maintaining them, but students often lose interest in continuing their foreign language education after those requirements have been met, just as I had.
Columnist and author Susan Jacoby calls us a 'Know-As-Little-As-You Can-Get-Away-With' Nation. According to Jacoby, 'Only 9 percent of Americans, compared with 44 percent of Europeans, speak a foreign language. The Web has only reinforced the smug American conviction that everyone worth talking to in the world speaks English.'
It does seem like most of us are simply satisfied with knowing enough to get by, but I think some schools are trying to make an effort to change this, and they're doing it in a novel way.
The New York Times recently published an article on the rise of Chinese language instruction in American schools. U.S. schools are implementing new foreign language programs with the help of the Chinese government, which sends instructors to countries all over the world and pays for part of their salaries.
Approximately 27,500 middle and high schools in the U.S. offer at least one foreign language, and of these, 1,600 are now teaching Chinese. The number of elementary school students learning Mandarin has also increased.
Now I really feel like a slacker. Little kids will soon be able to make business deals with the Chinese, and I can't even say a sentence in Spanish without second guessing myself first.
Jumping from high school level to college level was a large leap for me. I lost confidence in my ability to comprehend the material, and I got frustrated with the fact that I wasn't catching on as quickly as I hoped.
I convinced myself that being proficient in Spanish, rather than fluent, was still an accomplishment, yet I still don't identify myself as being bilingual, because I could never really hold up my end of a conversation with a native-Spanish speaker. So I suppose I'm still confused.
Sometimes I wish that the importance of learning another language was instilled in me when I was younger. If I was taught a foreign language in elementary school over a consistent period of time, I think that interest would have stuck with me throughout my entire schooling career. That natural curiosity that most children develop so early in life is what motivates them to seek further knowledge when they are older.
And this knowledge doesn't have to be sought only in a classroom. There are books, programs, and resources that are available to those who are willing to learn another tongue on their own.
We talk so much about the value of English, but Americans often fail to see the importance of learning another language other than their own. It takes patience, but the rewards are well worth it. So many more doors will open for those who do stick with the process.
Spanish is the number one minority language in the U.S. and Mandarin can give students an edge in business and government. Besides that, learning a language just makes you more culturally aware. It feeds the intellectual soul.
Although I'm not a kid anymore, I'm starting to realize that it's never too late to learn something new. Thinking about the possibilities overwhelms me. There are so many unique languages I would love to learn—Italian, Latin, Russian, German, and even American Sign Language. But for right now, I might just start by revisiting some of my old Spanish textbooks and brushing up a bit on that before I decide to take on the world.

E-mail: jessica.brant@ubspectrum.com