The Second Most Common U.S. Language Isn’t Mandatory in Teaching — But Shouldn’t It Be?

Alexandra Avangelista

I spent a semester studying abroad in Costa Rica, and was astonished to learn within my internship at an elementary school, that English language classes are mandatory for students all the way through high school, and are even required in some colleges. English is the most widely spoken foreign language in Costa Rica, so it only makes sense that students are encouraged to learn it. So with that being said, why aren’t more people encouraged to speak Spanish in the United States?

As the second most spoken language in the U.S. next to English, the number of Spanish speakers has been steadily increasing, accounting for about 13.5% of the U.S. population, according to a CNN Editorial Research article. It has been estimated that by the year 2050, the U.S. will have more Spanish speakers than Mexico, making it the highest-ranking country in the world for the number of Spanish speakers. So, hopefully you have retained the Spanish you learned from high school!

Very few school districts in the United States offer Spanish classes to children during their elementary school years. Foreign language classes are usually mandatory once students hit high school, and it is usually only a two-year requirement; students are encouraged to take the classes for longer if they don’t want to continue foreign language classes in college. I was fortunate enough to attend a school district where they started Spanish in elementary school, and I was driven to continue my learning through middle school, high school, and later make the language my college major. I have also had the opportunity to travel to Spanish speaking countries like Mexico, Spain, Costa Rica, Panama and Cuba, so I have an appreciation for the different cultures and the beauty of the language.

My internship in Costa Rica took place in a small elementary school, Escuela Primaria de Tirrases, which is in one of the most impoverished towns in Curridabat, San José. This school highlighted the importance of foreign language learning for its students. I was told that the classes are mandatory from elementary school through high school, and often times in college, because they recognize the importance of learning one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world. Students are eager to learn English, especially since many of them are keen on traveling to the U.S., a country many of them are intrigued by. The main contributor to Costa Rica’s economy is tourism, so English is seen as important in also allowing citizens to engage with tourists.

A street in Curridabat, Costa Rica. Photo taken by Alexandra Avangelista.

I often get the same response when I tell people that I’m majoring in Spanish — “I wish I had continued studying Spanish after high school”. I consistently encounter adults who now see the benefits of being bilingual, especially with Spanish. As I near the end of my college career and begin my job hunting, I can see the increasing demand for Spanish speakers, as well as the need for bilingual translators and interpreters in different fields. The demand for English/Spanish translators and interpreters is rapidly increasing; employment in these fields is projected to grow 20% from 2019 to 2029, which is faster than the average for all occupations. People can find themselves translating and interpreting in settings such as schools, hospitals, courtrooms, meeting rooms, and conference centers. All that is required is native-level proficiency in the language, a Bachelor’s degree, and the appropriate certification for the specific setting in which you will do your work.

Career benefits aside, growing up speaking more than one language can have a positive effect on children’s behavior and cognitive development. According to a conference paper written by Rismareni Pransiska, bilingual children are found to be of better competence than their monolingual peers when focusing on a task while tuning out disruption. They also have the benefit of being able to make new friendships conveniently, as speaking more than one language gives them more opportunities for friendship. They have respect and a positive attitude about other cultures and groups, making them more culturally competent. When we start students young, it enables them to not only grasp the language quicker as their young minds are more adapting, but they also to feel more inclined to continue with their learning through higher education and in turn become fluent. Not to mention, practicing more than one language is great exercise for your brain, and can decrease your risk of dementia as you grow older.

By making Spanish learning mandatory for children and adolescents in the U.S., we are not only giving them an advantage for greater success in their future, but they are also becoming more well-rounded and better adapted for a constantly changing country consisting of multiple cultures. I was genuinely surprised at how many people I came across in my experience in Costa Rica who were fluent in English, in addition to their native language. People in Costa Rica see it as an asset, which is a sharp contrast to those in the U.S. who don’t believe learning foreign languages in necessary. But with how fast the language is growing, it wouldn’t be a shock if this language was no longer considered foreign. It would be useful for our country as a whole to have more adults that know how to say other phrases aside from, “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?”