Remaining monolingual is a surefire way for America to fall behind
In a multilingual world, the United States remains a mostly monolingual country. Even though roughly 70 million Americans speak a language other than English at home, almost 80 percent speak English only. In Europe, almost two thirds of working age adults report knowing at least one foreign language. While over 300 million Chinese students are studying English, only 200,000 or so American students are studying Chinese.
Americans’ foreign language complacency may stem from the knowledge that English remains the language of international business and diplomacy and is by far the most commonly studied second language around the world. But others’ knowledge of English is no substitute for Americans’ knowledge of foreign languages.
The war in Ukraine serves as a wake-up call to Americans to make competence in foreign languages an urgent economic, national security, and educational priority.
The U.S. government once recognized the importance of expertise in foreign languages and cultures. Spurred by Cold War tensions and the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 and Fulbright-Hays in 1961, in part to help meet the country’s need for foreign language and global studies expertise. Support surged in the aftermath of 9/11, but fell sharply after 2011. It has yet to recover.
A 2020 Council on Foreign Relations report notes that at the State Department, “language-designated positions overseas are 15 percent vacant, and 24 percent of those staffed are filled by officers who do not meet the minimum language requirement.” The Defense Department has over 30,000 language positions, many of which it cannot fill. This deficit has greatly hampered the United States in diplomacy, intelligence gathering, war fighting, and nation building.
With 96 percent of the world’s consumers living outside the United States, most unable to speak English, monolingual culture undermines America’s economic standing. One out of every five U.S. jobs depends on global trade, and demand for workers with foreign language skills is growing. According to the American Council of Foreign Language Teachers, a quarter of U.S. employers are losing business because of a lack of foreign language proficiency.
Lack of foreign language skills also limits U.S. scientific progress. In 2004, American scientists failed to recognize the severity of the avian flu because the initial research was published in Chinese. When Congress passed the America Competes Act in 2007, it highlighted the importance of foreign language proficiency as a key element of “the nation’s competitiveness in scientific and technological innovation.”
Of course, there are plenty of other good reasons to study foreign languages. The cultural, social, and political life of another society cannot be captured fully in translation. And foreign language study fosters empathy, enhances cross-cultural communication, strengthens “analytical skills, memory function, and problem solving,” and improves learning in other disciplines.
Nonetheless, according to data compiled by the Modern Language Association, from 1997 to 2008, the number of elementary schools offering foreign language instruction declined from 31 percent to 25 percent, and from 75 percent to 58 percent in middle schools. In higher education, enrollments fell by 9.2 percent from 2013 to 2016. At all levels, these numbers continue to decline, a decline exacerbated by the pandemic-induced difficulties of teaching foreign languages when instructors and students are masked.
In 2017, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on Language Learning suggested a number of steps to make foreign language instruction a national priority, including: expansion of the number of certified language teachers; starting language education earlier, when students are most receptive; enhancing learning opportunities for heritage language speakers; supporting Native American languages; and expanding opportunities for dual-language 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 instruction 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 require just a year of instruction, should consider encouraging or even requiring students to graduate with fluency in a foreign language. Colleges and universities should also consider using consortia to expand instruction in less commonly taught languages, and ramp up summer introductory offerings for high school and college students. And the federal government should strengthen programs already in place to support foreign language acquisition.
After all, in an increasingly interconnected, highly competitive, multilingual world, remaining 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.