I recently read an article by political scientist Michael Cox contesting the belief that China will soon surpass the United States as an economic superpower. One of China’s flaws, Cox noted, was the “closed” nature of its foreign policy. To exemplify this, the article drew attention to the fact that many of China’s senior policy makers “do not speak foreign languages with any degree of fluency,” making it hard for China to win allies abroad.
Is the US much different? How many American political elites speak a second language? The number is surprisingly small: the only notably multilingual politicians are Mitt Romney and John Kerry (French), Barack Obama (Indonesian) and Jon Huntsman (Mandarin Chinese). It seems that American politicians are just as monolingual as their Chinese counterparts, despite the fact that about 50% of the world’s population is estimated to be bilingual or multilingual. And although the New Republic article argues that multilingualism in American politics is discouraged because it is seen as “un-American,” fluency in a foreign language can greatly enhance professional efficacy – just ask Alan Eyre, the Persian language spokesperson for the State Department who has grown immensely popular in Iran. Eyre believes his fluency in Persian and interest in Iranian poetry have helped Iranians warm up to him (and the United States) “because I have shown there are American diplomats who have real love for Iran, love for the culture, love for the language.”
It isn’t just future State Department employees who could benefit from being bilingual or multilingual. Learning a new language can help American employees communicate better with our increasingly diverse world (domestic and international) and better their overall cognitive performance. Currently, second language education in many American public schools is taught for a few fleeting semesters during high school, a format that neither provides the right amount of instruction to attain fluency nor exploits the optimal time in a student’s life to learn a second language. It’s about time America embraced multilingualism and foreign language education more wholeheartedly. Foreign language education should occupy an increased portion of elementary and middle school curricula in all American public schools to help future generations of Americans better their cognitive performance across many disciplines and become more competitive in the workforce.
Back in the day, bilingualism was feared to be detrimental to a child’s capacity to become fluent in English. However, most new research suggests that bilingual and multilingual individuals are better at processing language (English or otherwise) than monolingual individuals, show an increased ability to concentrate through classroom distractions, and even exhibit reduced rates of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Therefore, foreign languages should be taught to all children simply because they enhance a child’s ability to perform other cognitive tasks and perhaps serve as a preventive measure against debilitating diseases. Even if a student never ends up speaking a word of, say, German, after her last day of high school, the effects of learning a second language transgress the subject itself and will positively impact her cognitive performance in all disciplines.
Still, why force students to learn a second language in school? Why not allow them the freedom to choose to study a language in college or beyond, learning at their own will (and maybe even shaving precious dollars off school budgets)? However, as many older adults attempting to learn a foreign language can attest, picking up new languages gets more difficult as a person gets older. Young children are uniquely predisposed to learn languages (as anyone who has watched a babbling toddler grow into a fluent Kindergartener would know), so the American education system should exploit this natural capability to culture smarter, healthier students who have the tools necessary to compete in the crowding international job market. Including more foreign language education in elementary and middle school curricula isn’t simply a matter of providing all students equal opportunities, but of employing this education at the appropriate time to ensure the most gains for the students. In second language education, when matters.
Today, learning a second language isn’t just a matter of stretching the mind – it also means landing better jobs. Multilingualism is coveted in today’s globalizing world, and our schools should prepare students to meet the needs of the job market they are heading into. Even a cursory glance at the job and internship applications college students and recent graduates face reveals large, intimidating segments to list foreign language skills. The increasing real estate that multilingualism commands on so many applications – from financial services to phone banking – is a testament to the value of foreign language skills in today’s job market. Ease of travel, transportation and communication distinguish the current job market as one that particularly values a globally minded education.
Fluency in a second language is equally important in domestic industries. Bilingualism is becoming increasingly common in America as well (21% of Americans speak a language other than English at home), so being bilingual is becoming an increasingly important requisite for interacting with clients even within the United States. At my internship at my city government last summer, employees had the opportunity to receive bonuses that corresponded to their fluency in Spanish. Foreign language skills greatly enhance the competitiveness of a candidate in the job market, and this benefit should be available to all students – some of who may not be able to afford college and/or extracurricular language lessons.
The days of viewing multilingualism as “un-American” are over, and today’s world is giving increased value to foreign language fluency. American public schools need to recognize the importance of bi and multilingualism and incorporate foreign language instruction into elementary and middle school curricula.