Ignoring foreign languages in U.S. schools a disservice

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Too little, too late. That’s the unfortunate truth when it comes to foreign language education in the United States. In 2008, only 25 percent of elementary schools offered foreign language instruction, a decrease from gains made over the previous decade. When school budgets are slashed, foreign language programs are among the first to get cut. While high school foreign language programs are more common, it is more difficult for them to learn the language at that time. Frustrated, many students will give up and remain English-only speakers, becoming part of the growing population of Americans who has grown complacent in their monolingualism, believing that if they choose to travel abroad, “everyone will speak English.”

The United States is an anomaly among the vast majority of the world’s nations. Here, bilingualism or trilingualism is seen as a skill that only the most privileged residents have the opportunity to master. Meanwhile around the globe, it’s the norm for students to be learning one or even two other languages as early as elementary school. Students in Western European countries often learn English, French, and then a regional language; the vast majority of schoolchildren in Asia learn English as well as Mandarin Chinese in addition to their native Hindi, Japanese, or Korean; students in Central and South America learn English and Spanish alongside their indigenous tongue.

Meanwhile, the number of students enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs here in the U.S. has actually increased over the last decade, from 5.1 percent to 11 percent. When students from other countries enter the U.S., our education system demands they learn English right away. Yet schools don’t think it’s equally as critical for American students to reciprocate by learning some of the languages of their foreign-born peers. After high school or college, students can earn grants to travel to another country of their choice and teach English to the adults and children there. Are you sensing an imperialistic trend here?

While these students may feel that they have it easy now, their school systems are actually doing them a disservice by letting them graduate as monolingual. Globalization demands that successful businessmen and women speak at least one other language fluently in addition to their own. While the unofficial language of international business is English, the United States will simply not be able to compete on the same level as other world powers if American businessmen and women cannot communicate with at least some of their international partners in their native language.

But the need for multilingualism is growing at home as well. By 2025, whites will be the minority, as the U.S. grows increasingly diverse with more immigration from a wider variety of countries of origin. Still, the vast majority of American-born citizens remain monolingual.

Whatever the reason — xenophobia, stereotypes, or laziness — some folks would like to keep it that way. Known as the “English-only” movement, this group is pushing to have English declared as the only official language of the U.S. (the country currently has no official language) in an attempt to force out non-English-speaking residents.

The United States has prided itself on being a “melting pot” of citizens. Today, the descendants of those citizens would like to refuse this opportunity to other families exactly like theirs. The U.S. cannot truly welcome foreign immigrants if it cannot make an attempt to teach those immigrants’ native languages in our schools and use them in our workplaces. By doing so, we will be sending a message to residents of other nations that they are welcome here, just as Americans are welcomed (linguistically, anyway) in just about every other country in the world. The United States cannot be a melting pot of people unless it’s a melting pot of languages too, not just coexisting, but interacting with one another.