Staying monolingual is a surefire way for America to fall behind
In a multilingual world, the United States remains a predominantly monolingual country. Although approximately 70 million Americans speak a language other than English at home, nearly 80% speak only English. In Europe, nearly two-thirds of adults of working age declare to know at least one foreign language. While more than 300 million Chinese students study English, only about 200,000 American students study Chinese.
Americans’ complacency in foreign languages may stem from the fact that English remains the language of international business and diplomacy and is by far the language most studied second language around the world. But the knowledge of English of others does not replace the knowledge of foreign languages of Americans.
The war in Ukraine serves as a reminder to Americans to make foreign language proficiency an urgent economic, national security, and educational priority.
The US government has already recognized the importance of expertise in foreign languages and cultures. Boosted by Cold War tensions and the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet UnionCongress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 and Fulbright-Hays in 1961, in part to help meet the country’s needs for expertise in foreign languages and global studies. Support surged in the aftermath of 9/11, but dropped sharply after 2011. He hasn’t recovered yet.
A 2020 Report of the Council on Foreign Relations notes that at the State Department, “foreign language-designated positions are 15% vacant, and 24% of those filled are filled by officers who do not meet minimum language requirements.” The Ministry of Defense has over 30,000 language positions, many of which can not fill. This deficit has greatly hampered the United States in diplomacy, intelligence gathering, war fighting and nation building.
With 96% of global consumers live outside the United States, most unable to speak English, the monolingual culture is undermining America’s economic position. One in five Americans jobs depend on global tradeand demand for workers proficient in foreign languages grows. According to the American Council of Foreign Language Teachers, a quarter of US employers lose business due to a lack of command of a foreign language.
Lack of foreign language skills also limits American scientific progress. In 2004, American scientists did not recognize the seriousness of the bird flu because the original research was published in Chinese. When Congress passed the America Competes Act in 2007, it emphasized the importance of foreign language proficiency as a key part of “the country’s competitiveness in terms of scientific and technological innovation.”
Of course, there are many other good reasons to study foreign languages. The cultural, social and political life of another society cannot be fully captured in translation. And the study of foreign languages promotes empathy, improves intercultural communicationstrengthens”analytical skills, memory function and problem solving,” and improves learning in other disciplines.
Nevertheless, according to data compiled by the Modern Language Association, from 1997 to 2008, the number of elementary schools offering foreign language teaching fell from 31% to 25%, and from 75% to 58% in colleges. In higher education, enrollment fell by 9.2% from 2013 to 2016. At all levels, these figures continue to fall, a drop exacerbated by the pandemic-induced difficulties of teaching foreign languages when teachers and the students are masked.
In 2017, the Commission on Language Learning of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences suggested a number of steps make foreign language teaching a national priority, including: increasing the number of certified language teachers; start language teaching earlier, when students are most receptive; improve learning opportunities for speakers of heritage languages; support Native American languages; and expanding opportunities for bilingual immersion programs.
These recommendations, which have not yet been implemented, are a good start. But much more is needed.
We encourage parents to make language teaching for their children a priority. Employers should partner with schools, colleges and universities to support the training and recruitment of graduates with foreign language skills. Colleges and universities, many of which have no language requirements or only require one year of instruction, should consider encouraging or even requiring students to graduate with proficiency in a foreign language. Colleges and universities should also consider using consortia to expand instruction in less commonly taught languages and step up summer introductory offerings for high school and college students. And the federal government should strengthen the programs already in place to support foreign language acquisition.
After all, in an increasingly interconnected, highly competitive multilingual world, staying monolingual is a surefire way for America to fall behind.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.
David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College.