European Day of Languages


Is America the graveyard of languages? After three generations in the U.S., children often cannot speak their heritage language any more. The roundtable discussion, “Multilingualism in the U.S.” celebrated this year’s European Day of Languages. The Goethe-Institut, along with the Czech Center, French-Institute/Alliance Française, Flanders House, and Instituto Cervantes, hosted the discussion at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York on September 25th, 2014.


Goethe-Institut_Multilingualism_01smIntroduced by the host, Dr. Christoph Veldhues, Goethe-Institut’s Director of Language Programs for North America, and moderated by Robert Lane Greene, author and business correspondent for The Economist, the speakers presented new trends in multilingual education. While it is true that people all over the world strive to learn English, Lane Greene put forward that Americans who learn another language become an asset, which is a patriotic act. With growing American engagement in the world, the choice and value of language then depends on one’s own specialization – economic or diplomatic.

The speakers’ regret was evident in that America has always been multilingual, but heritage languages are often given up in the belief that it will bring success to the next generation. Yet, people often regret not having learned their parents’ language and therefore miss out on the pride that comes from being part of another culture. Parents are extremely important decision makers for language learners and can create mono-lingual situations for children, such as playgroups.


Goethe-Institut_Multilingualism_02smIn this global and interconnected society, language skills tend to reduce the fear of the unknown. Teachers might gain enormous benefits from learning languages that are very different from their own. Language awareness can have many benefits, including teaching children about each other and, resulting from that, such simple things as reducing playground violence. Teachers ought to have access to training to help exploit the multilingual repertoires that many children already have.

Speaking about trends in bilingual education, Angelica Infante from the NY State Department of Education introduced the state’s new designation of true multilingualism: “MLL: Multilingual Language Learners”. Bilingual education now starts as early as Kindergarten, and soon as early as Pre-K, which is also strong in Chicago with 10 public dual-language schools. Children come with assets, after all, and dual-immersion groups are meant to deepen intercultural and language understanding: children teach each other.


Goethe-Institut_Multilingualism_03smTechnology, in the classroom or via the smartphone in one’s pocket, can give hope to people who want to connect to foreign language sources: news, blogs, radio, or TV, so Mr. Greene. Some thought that it is a shame that TV programs are often translated before being broadcast in another country. What once required trips to classrooms or the library, such as learning vocabulary or phrases, can now be done at one’s own pace on the ubiquitous smartphone.


In the end, all agreed: America is definitely not the graveyard of languages, as multilingual realities unfold in many neighborhoods throughout the country where people build communal networks of support. 60 million people in America speak another language at home, and seven percent of them don’t speak any English at all.

Teach children languages early! And, if they already speak another language, support it! This saves energy later in life when it isn’t as easy to learn.

Make the choice: learn another language in school. It is much more than a requirement.