3 Reasons Why Language Learning Is Different in the U.S.

Sure, there is the occasional Spanish-speaker, but the truth is language learning in America is much less widespread than elsewhere in the world.

Here are three reasons why, which I will explain in this article:

  1. The education system
  2. Our commonly held expectations
  3. The supremacy of English


First and foremost, our education system.

As Stephen Krashen explains in his book, “The Natural Approach,” the American education system has bought into grammar-based methods and never looked back.

It is safe to say that by the period of World War II and its aftermath, the language profession in the United States had settled back into formal grammar-based methods which stressed conscious knowledge of grammar rules and ability to do sight translations. (“The Natural Approach,” pg. 12)

As a journalism major in college, I was required to complete the equivalent of four years of a foreign language (in other words, four semesters).

Imagine me slouching in a class of thirty-something students, trying not to get called on.

This was not for lack of interest; I didn’t want the teacher to call on me because I was so far behind.

And this was the case for the majority of students. Most of us could not understand what was being said to us. Or in Krashen’s words, we were missing out on comprehensible input.

Our level of comprehension was so low, we didn’t want to participate.

This gets circumvented by multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank tests that focus on specific vocabulary and grammar concepts, rather than speaking or listening.

Second on the list is commonly held expectations and understanding of language learning.

Beyond, pressing number one on the phone to bypass Spanish, there are very few instances when a foreign language is encountered here in America.

And therefore, foreign languages are not taken seriously. There are very few instances where it comes into play or serves a purpose for us.

Only two or three of the thirty-odd students hiding in the Spanish class with me intended put in the time to learn Spanish. And, sadly, they were held back by the rest of us who were stuck on the basics.

The sad truth is the majority of us simply needed the college credit to graduate.

That leads me to my third point, the supremacy of English.

In a Skype call with one of my French friends, I asked if Europeans would start studying German, since the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.

He said, “Europe is keeping English.  With or without the English people, we will still speak English. English is here to stay.”

And because of the prevalence and widespread use of English, many English speakers see no need to learn another language.

Alex Rawlings, “Britain’s most multi-lingual student in 2012,” says in the video I linked below: “I think we can all agree this is not an equal playing field. English has a very powerful popular culture amongst young people.”

And I don’t foresee this trend diminishing anytime soon.

When I was in China, there were native English-speakers whose full-time job was to talk to infants who could not talk yet. The purpose was to expose these newborns to English now, so that they learn English better later on in their lives.