Americans are lousy at learning foreign languages. We all know the historical reasons – the United States was long a big, largely monolingual country with a fairly self-sufficient economy. U.S. economic and military might (and that of the British Empire before) spread the English language across the world, so that English became the global second language and the de facto language of international business.
But in the latest Renewing America Policy Innovation Memorandum, A Languages For Jobs Initiative, scholars from the Center for Applied Linguistics argue that Americans in the future are unlikely to get by so well on English alone. Nearly 30 percent of the U.S. economy is now wrapped up in international trade, and half of U.S. growth since the official end of the recession in 2009 has come from exports. The fastest-growing economies in the world are not English speaking. And as Brad Jensen of Georgetown University has shown, the most promising export sector for the United States is business services, which often requires face-to-face interactions with foreign customers. As the authors write: “[F]uture U.S. growth will increasingly depend on selling U.S. goods and services to foreign consumers who do not necessarily speak English.”
Yet American students are woefully unprepared to do that. Foreign language education is actually on the decline in the United States. Only 15 percent of primary schools teach foreign languages, even though it is much easier to learn one by starting very young. Even in middle and high schools, foreign languages are generally optional and not required for graduation. Not surprisingly, just one in five public school students currently studies a foreign language.
The authors argue that the priority of foreign language instruction in education must be increased. This includes proper assessment and accountability, and the development of more immersion programs, which have been shown to be the most effective form of language instruction. The United States should take advantage of its large immigrant population of foreign language speakers to expand and strengthen immersion programs.
Some states are catching on, following Utah which has long been a leader in immersion education. Last year, Delaware Governor Jack Markell launched the Governor’s World Language Expansion Initiative, which will create new immersion education opportunities. Governor Markell argues that multinational companies in his state – of which there are many thanks to business-friendly laws and regulations –can’t find the foreign language speakers they need. Three Delaware school districts will launch Chinese and Spanish programs next year, and state has set a goal of 20 immersion programs with over 2,500 students by 2015 and over 6,000 students by 2020.
Increasing overseas tourism to the United States – which has been an Obama administration priority – has also underscored the importance of language skills. With many more Chinese and Brazilian tourists, for instance, hotels and retailers will pay a premium for staff with the language skills to communicate with those visitors.
While much of the competitiveness discussion concerns the performance of the U.S. economy, the real issue at stake is the competitiveness of future generations of Americans. U.S. companies will find the personnel they need to compete in export markets, and are perfectly happy to hire English-speaking foreigners rather than foreign language-speaking Americans. Americans who speak English alone will increasingly face a disadvantage in competing for some of the best jobs in business.
Certainly language is only one part of the set of skills that U.S. students will need to thrive in an increasingly global economy. Study abroad, foreign travel where possible and familiarity with other cultures are all important parts of the mix. But the ability to communicate in one or more foreign languages is clearly key.
Foreign language instruction needs to stop being an afterthought in the K-12 curriculum and instead become a top priority alongside math, science and the humanities.