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Europeans keep lapping America on foreign language learning

Only 20% of American K-12 students learn a foreign language, compared to a median of 92% of students from European countries, according to a study by Pew Research.

Why it matters: "Our history has been that you can work, play and live your whole life and often not run into anyone who speaks another language and not have a need to know another language," Marty Abbott, executive director for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, told Axios.

  • But with the expansion of international business and the world being more connected through technology, "it's a whole other world," she said.

The big picture: Most Americans don't see practical value in learning a second language.

  • Only 36% of Americans think knowing a second language is very important for success in the workplace, according to a 2016 Pew survey.
  • Yes, but: A survey coming out next month from ACTFL shows an overwhelming number of U.S. business have need of multilingual employees, but have had difficulty finding them.
  • And relying on an interpreter or translator isn't always enough, according to Abbot, "business often doesn’t get done at the business table, it's done in social situations and side events."
QuoteWe’re just naive right now in thinking that the rest of the world speaks English.
— Marty Abbot

How we got here: There are geographical, governmental and cultural reasons behind the gap in language learning between the U.S. and European nations. Geographically, most Europeans live closer to another country where a foreign language is spoken than Americans — despite Mexico and Canada at our borders.

  • Most European nations have national requirements for students to learn at least one foreign language — and sometimes two, such as in Austria, Norway and France.
  • And most foreign language learning begins by the age of 9 in Europe, according to Pew Research. The U.S. has no such requirements.
  • Americans "tend to have a mindset that they’re not good at languages," Abbot said, something she believes can be solved by making it a normal part of education and starting younger. Learning a foreign language is often seen as an academic pursuit, she said, with the focus on learning a lot about a language but not always how to practically communicate.

Go deeper: 10 ways America is falling behind

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