Article in The Hill
Will speaking foreign languages finally become an asset in the U.S.? In politics, opinion on this question is split. Presidential hopeful and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg appears to have broken out of a crowded field of Democratic candidates not only because he openly gay, but because he knows eight languages and is not embarrassed to speak them. Recently, Buttigieg spoke Norwegian with a reporter, much to the amazement of people across the political divide. The positive response to Buttigieg’s candidacy and language skills may signal a shift away from an English-only environment in the U.S., proving that language study and learning about the world are a boon, not a burden.
But a polyglot like Buttigieg is an exception. As of 2013, only 10% of Americans over age 5 spoke another language fluently, whereas 80% of the population spoke only English. Foreign language instruction in U.S. primary and secondary schools has been shown to be ineffective and there is a national shortage of qualified foreign language teachers. More alarming is the fact that Foreign Service jobs remain open or inadequately filled due to a lack of political will or language expertise.
Americans are commonly assumed to be uninterested in foreign languages unless their national interest is at stake (Russian or Arabic). But this may be only part of the story. Across the country, bilingual schools and language immersion programs are currently booming, while online language apps like Duolingo have exploded, showing that in fact many Americans are eager language learners. The free, game-like app boasts 27 million active users per month studying over 30 languages, including hard to come-by languages such as Swahili, Czech, and yes, Norwegian. Underfunded public school districts make up a portion of their users, as well as refugees and immigrants learning the language of their new country. Although many researchers doubt the effectiveness of language apps, their success indicates a real need and desire for language learning across the US.
In higher education there is a division between enthusiasm for global engagement and reluctance to support the study of foreign languages. Colleges have been promoting global citizenship and global learning over the last several years to ready their students for an increasingly global society. Yet a forthcoming Modern Language Association report describes how 651 foreign language programs in U.S. colleges have been cut between 2013 and 2016. In 2014, the Academy of American Arts and Sciences noted that following the recession of 2008, 12% of foreign language departments were cut, more than any other program.
While foreign-language programs both on and off-campus languish with low enrollments or are simply eliminated, study-abroad programs taught in English flourish. Studying global law in Paris, global health in Brazil, international finance in Hong Kong, or clinical psychology in Japan can all be done without any foreign languages. English-language programs are certainly of educational value, but such overseas programs promote American bubbles abroad, rather than international exchanges.
Our universities are right to promote a global campus, to bring international students to its classrooms and send Americans to other shores. Yet while cultural diversity is celebrated on campuses today, the importance of language study for the understanding of culture is ignored. True cultural diversity is not possible without recognizing the diversity of languages on campus and in the world.
In 2012, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers predicted that translation programs could take the place of traditional language study, at a fraction of the cost. He also declared that a “global English” would dominate international communication in business, science, and so forth. However, as others have described, moving to an English-only world is as undesirable as it is unrealistic: only 20% of the world’s population speaks English, and only 5% as native speakers.
How can the excitement we see for language apps and dual-language programs be funneled for future educational goals? Besides raising language requirements, colleges could remedy the shortfall in language competency by making cultural diversity their central educational goal. International and bilingual students already bring a wealth of language diversity to campus. Schools ought be places where such heritage languages thrive, not wither. Intensive classroom instruction supplemented by social media pen pals, skype dates with international authors, immersion experiences with host families, study abroad and onsite cultural experiences, all promote fluency. But what is most needed is a shift of attitude towards languages.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, the 18th century pioneer of the liberal arts education, argued that the spirit of a language expresses a people’s identity, their inner life and the community of its speakers. Learning a new language is not merely a tool of communication, but the discovery of a new world. Humboldt understood that to educate citizens in a modern, enlightened society means to sharpen their senses for the creative power of language, the way it shapes our thinking, our feelings and our world.
At a time when the threat of border walls and isolationism is putting America's future as a nation of immigrants at risk and alienating our international allies, it is language learning, above all else, that can produce global citizens. Even studying Norwegian? Yes, because usefulness and strategic thinking never drove true intellectual curiosity, innovation — or diversity. Thomas Jefferson, who read six languages and became fluent in French after spending time in the country, considered the study of languages indispensable. What is needed in the age of Trump are people, including politicians, who make the study of foreign languages American again.
Klaus Mladek is an Associate Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. Follow him on Twitter @mladekkm. Kristin O’Rourke is a Senior Lecturer in Art History and a former Asst. Dean for Fellowship Advising at Dartmouth College, and a Public Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @KristinORourke1.