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Report: U.S. worst place to learn a language

| March 4, 2021 1:00 AM

It doesn’t get more ironic: While ours is the country with the most spoken languages within its borders, it’s also apparently the worst place to learn one.

The Worldwide Language Index, prepared by digital learning platform Preply, uses 18 metrics to analyze which of 30 nations across Europe and North America offer the most conducive environments for learning a foreign language.

The U.S. ranked last in the index just below Canada, the second-worst. The United Kingdom wasn’t much better — ranking 25 of 30 overall, and 28th in number of people who speak a second language. Luxembourg ranks first with 100 percent of children learning a foreign language before graduation (Scandinavian countries generally ranked high).

Assessment factors covered seven categories with equal weight: The nation’s number of official languages, extent of multilingualism, percentage of children who learn a second language in school, proficiency in the most common foreign language, access to technology, subtitles (more than voiceovers), and language diversity.

Why the emphasis on subtitles? The report cited outside research concluding subtitles increase foreign language retention by combining sound with visual text. Unlike dubbing or voiceover, subtitles keep the learner engaged on multiple levels and improve phonetic understanding — which also makes identifying accents easier.

Citizens of countries in North America and the U.K. who do speak a second language ranked comparatively low in its proficiency, and have a low percentage of children who pick one up in school. We’re a bit spoiled in later life too as English has become the international language of business, making it easier for English-speakers to overlook the multiple benefits of learning a second language.

According to multiple studies conducted by American universities, the National Education Association, various school districts and state agencies, those benefits include:

· Higher academic achievement and test scores

· Enhanced cognition/brain function

· Improved memory

· Better understanding of other cultures

· Improved multi-tasking

One University of Chicago study in 2012 also found that multilingual people have enhanced decision-making abilities. Researchers theorized that the nuances and regional expressions a foreign-language student must frequently judge for appropriateness and hidden meanings (not to mention all that practice) create more confidence in decision-making.

A 2017 follow-up study by the same professor found language-learning also helps remove disruptive emotion from the decision-making process.

The Preply study noted that the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. rank high for access to technology, indicating a shift toward multilingualism is both possible and affordable. For the full results see

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who’s glad she grew up bilingual, given her addiction to knowing dangerously little of as many languages as possible. Email