Why foreign language education has moved from important to imperative.
Many first-time travelers experience some pre-trip language anxiety. They wonder if a quick mid-flight course in French will be enough to let them successfully navigate the Paris métro or order a crêpe.
To American tourists’ delight, most Europeans are able to converse easily (though sometimes reluctantly) in English. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Americans’ proficiency in foreign languages. According to the 2007 American Community Survey issued April 2010, more than 80 percent of Americans speak English only. Consequences of this fact are not simply limited to ease of foreign travel. A powerful current of change in the world’s economic makeup is testing the odds of getting by in business on English alone.
After decades of global economic supremacy, the U.S. may cede dominance to China within the next decade, according to the latest projections. Standard Chartered PLC, a leading international bank focused on Asian, African and Middle Eastern markets, anticipates that China’s economy will surpass the U.S. by 2020. This news leads many to wonder just how long our English-only habit will suffice in an Asia-centric marketplace.
A March 2011 Royal Society report declared China was also poised to take over the top spot in published scientific research. The report claims the U.S. and the United Kingdom will be bumped to second and third place as soon as 2013.
Cash-strapped public schools struggle to keep up with the projected demand for East Asian languages. The Center for Applied Linguistics reported last year that just four percent of the nation’s middle and high schools offered Chinese language courses in 2008.
Our own nation’s linguistic landscape is undergoing a transformation just as striking as the economic shift. New 2010 census data reveal a Hispanic population exceeding 50 million — an increase of 43 percent in a decade. The entire U.S. population grew by less than 10 percent over the same period.
This booming growth signals an end to the English monopoly in America. In the new jobs market, foreign language skills will be an essential qualification, not merely résumé filler.
Unfortunately, the same economic forces that led to China’s ascendancy and a surge in immigration have also brought about efforts to slash education investment. Desperate to balance state and federal budgets, many legislators are targeting public school funding and financial aid programs for massive cuts.
Clearly, we can’t rely on our education system to compete with China’s, where children begin English instruction in the third grade. Instead, we can enrich a public school education with creative exposure to other cultures and languages. With the wealth of resources now available online, international travel is not necessarily required to connect with foreign language speakers.
Adults wishing to build a stronger résumé or supplement their child’s education may consider joining a conversational group through a site such as Meetup.com. The social networking portal offers more than 1,000 culture and language groups in 33 countries.
Rosetta Stone offers intensive online language courses in 31 languages, aimed at both child and adult learners. The program’s speech-recognition technology simulates the feedback of a teacher, while its “Native Socialization” feature connects learners with native speakers via video chat.
Multicultural experiences abound within the U.S. and on the Internet. However, nothing compares to traveling abroad and struggling to order a meal or read a map in an unfamiliar language. The experience can prompt a traveler to absorb a new language in no time — out of sheer necessity.
Total immersion language programs, such as the German-American Partnership Program, offer high school and college-age students safe and intensive learning environments. Students spend several weeks living with a host family in a foreign country and practice a new language with native speakers, often forging lasting friendships along the way.
While a short stay abroad won’t solve the problem of a largely monolingual workforce, meaningful exposure to other cultures, at home and abroad, is a first step towards building the cultural literacy we need in the new global playing field.