Foreign Countries, Cultures Intrigue Teens

by Heather Mason Kiefer, Contributing Editor

Girls more interested than boys

It's no secret that many around the world view the United States unfavorably. Recent surveys have shown the U.S. image abroad is pretty dismal, so much so that President Bush recently tasked Karen Hughes, one of his most trusted advisers, with helping to improve this image.

What can American youth do to help improve the way the rest of the world perceives America in the future? Cultivating an interest in and appreciation of the world around them would seem to be a good start. The most recent Gallup Youth Survey* asked teens between the ages of 13 and 17 how much interest they have in learning about several aspects of the world; judging from the survey results, it looks as if teens are curious about foreign countries and how other people live.

Interest in Foreign Countries

Most U.S. teens are enthusiastic about traveling abroad and learning other languages. Two-thirds (67%) say they have "a great deal of interest" in visiting foreign countries, and another 21% have "some interest." Substantial majorities also say they want to learn a foreign language (something many teens are required to do in high school anyway) -- 54% express a great deal of interest and 26% have some interest.

But for some teens, this enthusiasm for international things stops short of a desire to actually spend a year of their youth in another country. Slightly more than a third (36%) say they have a great deal of interest in "spending a year in school in a foreign country," while 23% have some interest.

There are a few significant gender differences in these results. Girls are slightly more likely than boys to be interested in visiting a foreign country -- 91% of girls have at least some interest, as do 85% of boys. Girls are also a bit more likely to express interest in learning another language -- 85% to 75%. But there are greater differences when it comes to the desire to spend a year abroad: 69% of girls have at least some interest spending a year in school in a foreign country, compared with just 49% of boys.

Interest in Diversity

Traveling abroad is a great way to gain international awareness, but teens can also learn valuable lessons from getting to know the diverse population in their own country. Gallup also asked teens if they are interested in learning about people with different backgrounds in the United States, and learning about different religions around the world.

Again, more teens are interested than uninterested, but the interested numbers are somewhat lower than for visiting foreign countries. Forty-one percent of teens have a great deal of interest in learning "about people with different backgrounds in this country" and 39% have some interest. Interest in learning about different religions around the world is not quite as strong -- 35% have a great deal of interest, 34% have some interest.

As with the other questions, girls are more interested than boys in both learning about people with different backgrounds and learning about different religions in the world.

Bottom Line

Living in another country would likely go a long way toward broadening the cultural perspective of the average teenager. Norman Duarte, a spokesperson for AFS (one of the world's largest student exchange programs), cites multiple benefits to studying abroad, including learning another language, developing new relationships that change your outlook on life, and gaining awareness of international issues. "When you live in another country, you don't just learn another language," says Duarte, who was an AFS participant himself as a teenager, "You also get a bigger view of the world."

But teens who don't have the opportunity to live in another country will gain cultural awareness through more simple means: getting to know people who come from different cultures here in America, learning about foreign cultures and languages at school, and an occasional trip abroad. Large percentages of teens are interested in doing these things -- a positive sign for the future of America's image around the world. 

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,028 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted Jan. 17 to Feb. 6, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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