Every American Bilingual

Followers of this blog have probably noticed that I trouble you about both education and social/political issues.  The link between the two is my belief that education is the critical factor in improving society.  It is the reason I chose a career in education in the first place.

Travel anywhere in Europe or nearly anywhere else in the world and people are learning more than just their native language.  A monolingual American English speaker can travel to any capital city in the world and find sufficient English speakers to make himself understood.  Thanks to the British Empire, upon which the sun never set, English is one of the most spoken languages in the world.  Good, you say.  So why learn another language if you speak English?  There are several reasons. 

First though, the disclosure:  I am a recovering Spanish teacher who also did time teaching bilingual reading and English as a Second Language.

My father was a businessman and he often said "You can buy from anyone around the world in your own language, but you can only sell in the buyer's language."  Our current trade deficit and the demise of our manufacturing base have many causes.  But ignoring the limitations of our monolingual culture would be a mistake.  If we got our factories back, would we have enough qualified marketers to sell what we make overseas?

But my greater concern is that too many Americans lack any understanding or empathy for foreign cultures.  Last year's hysteria over mosques brought home the ethnocentrism that rears its ugly head here periodically.  Even traveling doesn't seem to adequately break this pattern.  Tourists visit large Westernized cities and experience the tourism industry, rarely the homes or struggles of other peoples.

In my experience, only those who have experienced a culture firsthand or learned to speak another language find it easy to see things as a non-American might. Though I only studied Spanish and a little French, the struggle to learn those languages helped me be comfortable with the "otherness" of foreign cultures.

I propose that learning a second language rise in priority in America.  It must begin in elementary school, not high school, as language learning gets more difficult as we grow.  Therefore we must ensure that our elementary teachers leave their teacher education programs proficient not only in speaking but also in teaching another language. 

So what languages?  Investing in the most-spoken languages in the modern world makes some sense.  These are:  Spanish, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu and Mandarin Chinese.  And English, but let's assume we've got that one down.  What if two-thirds of Americans spoke any of these four top languages in addition to English?  And what if the other one-third spoke a smattering of other world languages?

I will make a bold prediction.  If Americans had this training, there would be a large body of us able to interpret events and interact effectively with people from any corner of the globe.  This would be a huge boon economically as we once again take our place of economic leadership.  My even bolder prediction though is that America's involvement in wars -- with all the tragedies, expense and international consequences -- would dissipate.  It would take a conflict as dire as World War II to pull America in.  Why?  Because Americans would surrender their singularity of vision; the narrow view of the world that allows us to see enemies without redeeming qualities.  We would no longer accept a one-sided view of the world, the sort that leads people to believe that violence is the only answer.

According the Gallup Poll (2001), 22% of Americans say they are fluent in a second language.  I was surprised it was that high.  But the explanation wasn't hard to find.  Census records indicated that at the same time, 20% of Americans spoke a language other than English at home.  So nearly all bilingual Americans have English as their second language; these are our immigrants.  I suppose that leaves 2% of native English speakers -- the rest of us -- who are fluent in any other language.  A sad reality and a significant contributor to both our economic problems and our foreign policy ones.

Contrast this with China or Europe.  300 million Chinese are learning English (not to mention those learning Arabic, German, Spanish and other tongues).  56% of Europeans are fluent in two or more languages with half of those fluent in three or more. (Source)

So when does America take foreign language study seriously?  According to a recent article, only 30% of high school students take any foreign language classes.  At my previous high school, foreign language staffing will be reduced from 1.67 in 2010 to .5 fte next year.  Two years in a row, budget cuts fell on foreign language.  And there is no foreign language instruction prior to 9th grade.  Whereas a few years ago, our district offered three languages; now only Spanish is offered at any of the three high schools.

Some of you will question whether language learning can have this kind of power.  I would love to see a study on war frequency and multilingual levels around the world.  I'm guessing that wars are not often fought against foes who speak a common language.  And if I'm wrong, what have we lost?