Foreigners learn our language; we don’t learn theirs.
On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama was asked about foreign-language education. He responded emphatically, calling it “embarrassing” that most Americans are monolingual. Being able to speak a foreign language makes you “so much more employable,” he said. “We should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age.”
I recently telephoned Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and read him that quote. He laughed, saying that Mr. Obama is not likely to sway many minds. Americans are still stubbornly—even proudly—monolingual, more concerned with protecting English than with learning another tongue.
This attitude is reflected in the classroom. Between 1997 and 2008, the percentage of elementary schools offering foreign-language instruction decreased to 25% from 31%; in middle schools, that figure dropped to 58% from 75%, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Foreigners learn our language; we don’t learn theirs.
The number of high schools teaching foreign languages remained about the same. Yet students who begin studying a language in the 9th or 10th grade, significantly diminish the likelihood that they will ever achieve proficiency.
The picture is no less bleak on college campuses, where, according to the Modern Language Association in 2007, around 8% of students were enrolled in foreign-language courses. That’s about half of what it was in the mid-1960s. As the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, “This is not an easy time for foreign-language departments.”
This was not supposed to happen. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 focused attention on the nation’s language deficits. A report by the National Research Council put the matter starkly: “A pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace.”
In 2006, George W. Bush established the National Security Language Initiative, a $114 million program to encourage the study of high-priority languages, such as Arabic and Farsi.
Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says, “We thought it was our Sputnik moment,” referring to the Soviet Union’s satellite launch in 1957 that led the federal government to pour resources into science, technology, and Russian-language education. Today, Ms. Abbott sounds dejected: “We have made no dramatic strides.” Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, says morosely that too many Americans believe “that foreign language education is superfluous.”
Maybe it is. Advances in machine translation, coupled with the global dominance of English—by some estimates, about one-quarter of the world’s population can to a certain extent communicate in English—has led some observers to question the necessity of learning a language other than English.
In his book “The Great Brain Race,” Ben Wildavsky describes a global knowledge economy dominated by English. He notes that even in France—France!—English has triumphed. Richard Descoings, president of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, told Mr. Wildavsky, “We have to stop saying that English is one of the languages. It is the language of international exchange: commercial, military, and also intellectual and scientific. . . . It is no longer an object of debate.”
That perspective is not limited to Europe. A 2008 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that 96%-100% of those questioned in China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam think that it is important for their children to learn English. The online retailing giant Rakuten is one of a number of Japanese companies to embrace English. As The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, by 2012 Rakuten’s employees will be required to speak and communicate with each other in English.
In China, the celebrity English instructor Li Yang attracts 10,000 or more students to arena-size classrooms. His motto: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!” It is a similar story in India, already the third-largest English-language book market in the world. D. Shyam Babu, a fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies in New Delhi, told me, “For Indians, English is an obsession.” In May this year, in a village in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, a foundation stone was laid for a temple dedicated to Goddess English.
Ultimately, some linguists and computer scientists argue, technology will collapse the world’s language barriers. Imagine walking down the street in Cairo, speaking English into your cell phone, and having your words come out in Arabic.
That future might not be far off. Reliable and ubiquitous translation technology “is really only a matter of time,” according to Nicholas Ostler, author of the forthcoming book, “The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return of Babel.” Yorick Wilks, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield, is more specific, predicting in an email that adequate machine translations “will almost certainly be available as phone apps within a decade.”
That prospect is understandably alarming to many educators, who point to a mountain of persuasive studies showing that bilingualism bolsters creativity and cognitive development, as well as cultural awareness and sensitivity. “As humans, we will always use language in ways that are creative, culturally specific and idiosyncratic,” says Ms. Feal. “That’s the joy of language, and you can’t replace that with an iPhone app.”
But it won’t stop many people from trying.
Mr. Goldstein is a staff editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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