The inability of too many Americans to learn or speak anything but English constitutes a foreign language “emergency” that could end up harming the economy and impairing U.S. foreign policy, according to a survey.
Only 20.7 percent of American adults can speak a foreign language — compared with 66 percent of all European adults who know more than one language, says “America’s Languages,” a report released in March by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The findings were discussed this week at a briefing hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. students have no national mandate to study foreign languages, but nearly two dozen European countries require high school students to study languages besides their native tongues for at least a year, according to a 2015 Pew Research report.
“The wide disparity between the European or Chinese approach to languages and the U.S. approach suggests that we, as a nation, are lagging in the development of a critical 21st century skill,” the report said, “and that we risk being left out of any conversation that does not take place in English.”
Esther Brimmer, the CEO of NAFSA: The Association of International Educators, said that since humanitarian crises occur most often in places where people don’t speak English, speaking foreign languages — especially non-Western tongues such as Chinese, Arabic and Persian — is imperative for U.S. diplomats and international aid professionals.
Michael Nugent, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Language and National Security Education Office*, said a lack of knowledge of foreign languages can affect national security.
“It’s very, very important that the [U.S.] presence when they’re working out there, whether it’s [the Defense Department] or State or any of the other agencies, that they understand the culture and the region with which they are working,” Mr. Nugent said.
Right now, the inability to speak a foreign language doesn’t prevent someone from being accepted into or rising through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service or the military.
In addition to a lack of resources, Mr. Nugent said, one of the challenges is that foreign languages are not always taught effectively.
“Some of the teaching that happened in the past was pretty bad,” Mr. Nugent said. “Our various programs are trying to get students to learn effectively so when they graduate from college, they’re not only able to order a beer, maybe.”
“We’ve been talking about this emergency now for 10 to 15 years,” he said. “In our business, it is an emergency.”
Panelists said the problems start with the U.S. education system. Too many primary and secondary schools fail to provide adequate foreign language teaching, they said.
According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Education, 44 states and the District of Columbia face a teacher shortage in foreign language courses.
“We need to make sure that languages are included in school curricula, just the way math is,” Martha Abbott, an executive of the Lead With Languages campaign, said Wednesday. “I think we need to listen to parents. They’re starting to demand it, especially parents of elementary students.”
But a poll conducted by the campaign found that while American parents equated learning other languages with academic success, they were generally unaware of how proficiency in a foreign language can translate into employment opportunities.
Ms. Abbott noted that the number of U.S. employment advertisements for bilingual workers had doubled from 2010 to 2015, according to a report by New American Economy.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences study concluded that “the United States has only focused on language education in times of great need, such as encouraging Russian studies during the Cold War or instruction in certain Middle Eastern languages after the terrorist attacks of 2001.”
“A wiser, more forward-thinking strategy would be to steadily improve access to as many languages as possible for people of every age, ethnicity and socioeconomic background — to treat language education as a persistent national need like competency in math or English, and to ensure that a useful level of proficiency is within every student’s reach.”
*Mr. Nugent’s affiliation with the Defense Department office was misstated in the original version of this story. It has been corrected.
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