U.S. News & World Report
Why Speaking Only English Is Not Enough
Language immersion is needed to help address global challenges, yet U.S. citizens are falling behind.
By Nicholas B. Dirks, Contributor June 4, 2019
At a time of a U.S. trade war with China and growing global tension – when one would think international understanding is more important than ever – the English-speaking world has never been more complacent about speaking other languages.
The fact that English has become the language of international business, and the steady technological advances of different computer-based translation apps, confirm and deepen pre-existing sentiment that English is the only language one really needs to know. Add in that 300 million to 400 million Chinese students are studying English, and perhaps one could be forgiven for believing that English is more important than any other language.
If present demographic trends continue, however, by the middle of this century only 5% of the world's population will be native speakers of English. The Chinese may be investing a great deal in English instruction, but they are not giving up their own language. And yet, in the United States, only 200,000 students are studying Chinese.
Although the number of people knowing more than one language has in fact increased since the 1970s, the reason for this has been immigration. What we call "heritage" languages – languages that have been spoken since early childhood because they are spoken in one's home and community – constitute the major reason for bilingualism. Within three generations, however, most heritage speakers have lost any understanding of their "mother" tongues, giving in to the local pressures not only of speaking English but of speaking nothing else.
In fact, whereas two-thirds of Europeans know a second language, only 20% of the population in the U.S. has any familiarity with a second language, and levels of "fluency" are significantly lower in the U.S. than in areas of the world where English is not the first language. Meanwhile, schools in the U.S. – especially public schools – are steadily disinvesting in language teaching, and there is a critical shortage of language teachers in all but six states. And the Modern Language Association has just documented that colleges have closed 650 language programs in a recent three-year period.
I recently served on a language commission convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and learned that there is a growing consensus that language acquisition is critical not just for cultural understanding and exchange but for U.S. success in areas ranging from foreign policy to global security, and from international business to science and technology. And yet, in our understandable concern to focus on training in fields related to STEM, language learning is widely seen as dispensable.
In recent years there has been growing backlash against globalization. While serious debate about the benefits of various aspects of globalization is doubtless necessary, there is an unfortunate tendency for the current reaction to justify further retreat from the goals of global cosmopolitanism. These goals include the recognition that language is critical to identity and to culture, and that significant exposure to other languages opens up the capacity to understand the nuances and textures of other perspectives that are lost when assuming English is sufficient.
No matter what the current changes in policies around immigration and trade might be, however, globalization is not going away. If anything, global interdependence continues to increase in virtually every domain. Most contemporary challenges are global in nature and therefore require global solutions, from climate change and public health to national security and economic inequality. And global solutions require genuine global participation in both developing and implementing new ideas and policies.
In 1941, Henry Luce declared the dawn of the American Century. Written at the moment the United States was about to enter World War II, Luce's famous article provided historical justification and political direction for a new American embrace of its global power at precisely the point not only that Europe was once again convulsed by internal conflict but also (and not unrelatedly) reacting to the imminent end of European empire. In the aftermath of the war, the U.S. – both through government programs and major foundation support – invested dramatically in the study of the globe, including its languages.
Today, at a time when we are arguably transitioning from the American Century to the Asian Century, it would seem even more necessary to cultivate the study of other parts of the world, beginning with language. It should be possible to make this argument not merely as an extension of an interest in global domination.
However we might conceptualize the relative significance and likely future of global studies, we should be able to agree that language is the key for global understanding as well as for communication. We think and imagine in language, and language conveys the most fundamental elements of our personal, familial and cultural being. Language is how we connect with each other. Genuine facility in more than one language opens up both a host of new relationships and a general capacity to listen and engage well beyond the restricted borders of our most immediate upbringing and instincts.
Language learning is best begun young, and is even better when taught through various forms of immersion that can be both extremely effective and great fun for children. A commitment to language learning in schools and colleges will bring a whole host of benefits, from early sensitivities to people from other cultures to greater facility in learning more generally. When done well, language learning helps young people develop their memory beyond specific language instruction, and improves their executive functions as well (e.g. focus, planning and prioritization).
Language learning has lifelong benefits as well – even in the maintenance of memory functions in older age. But perhaps most importantly, language learning can be the foundation for training all of us to be citizens of the global world. Minimally, this citizenship will be critical for our collective survival in a world where even the most intense forms of ethno-nationalism and populism appear to be global phenomena.
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