For years, the politics of language in the U.S. have revolved around a single question: Are enough immigrants learning to speak English?
But in an increasingly globalized economy, some experts wonder whether the nation should ask the opposite question: Are enough native-born Americans learning to speak a foreign language?
Mastering a foreign language is a potential advantage that some Americans—particularly those of means—increasingly want to claim for their own careers. Many have quietly hit the books or the road to pursue a skill set previously the domain of our exotic European brethren or the odd American expat.
Some indicators track growing interest in learning a second tongue (or more). The number of students studying foreign languages at American universities jumped 6.6 percent from 1.57 million in 2006 to 1.68 million in 2009, according to the Modern Language Association, which tracks language instruction. (Spanish, French, and German ranked as the top choices for students, according to MLA, followed by Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic.)
Those outside the ivory tower are buying Rosetta Stone software by the fistful: Sales were up 67 percent in early 2012, compared with the same time last year. Demand for classes to teach kids a second language is booming, says Tomas Huntley, a regional director of Language Stars, an academy with 20 locations in the Chicago and Washington areas. Nearly 2,000 students, some as young as 1 year old, are now enrolled in the school’s classes in D.C.
The case for increasing the number of bilingual Americans centers on the growing interdependence of the global economy. With American businesses, nonprofits, and colleges pursuing markets or audiences abroad, the ability to speak another language is a tangible skill that can help job-seekers stand out.
And there are other benefits. Those who speak more than one language apparently earn more. A 2005 study in The Review of Economics and Statistics indicated that bilingualism correlates with a 2.8 percent increase in hourly earnings. Other experts say that mastery of a second language leads to increased cognitive ability in children, and may even help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. College admission officers often consider bilingualism, and the cultural awareness that it signifies, as a thumb on the scale for applicants, says Jim Miller of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Despite such benefits, the overall number of native-born Americans comfortable conversing in anything other than English remains relatively small. An analysis of 2010 census numbers shows that only 10 percent of the native-born reported speaking a second language. When immigrants were included, that percentage increased to 20.1 percent.
The U.S. lags in multilingual fluency: 56 percent of European Union residents speak a language other than their mother tongue, according to a 2006 European Commission report; 28 percent of those had mastered two foreign languages. Likewise, in 2009, about nine times as many Chinese students study in the U.S. as vice versa. According to the State Department, the number of Chinese studying English exceeds the number of Americans studying Mandarin by 600 to 1.
For the federal government, the relative paucity of foreign-language speakers is an ongoing challenge. Earlier this year, the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee held a hearing that declared the federal government’s limited foreign-language capability to be “a national-security crisis.” At the hearing, subcommittee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said that a decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the FBI and CIA as well as the departments of State, Homeland Security, and Defense continue to experience shortages of “people skilled in hard-to-learn languages due to a limited pool of Americans to recruit from.” At the same hearing, Laura Junor, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for readiness, testified that while the military has filled the vast majority of the nearly 30,000 positions that require language skills, only 28 percent of the people in those jobs met the Pentagon’s own language-proficiency requirements.
Americans seem aware of the problem. Eighty-five percent of adults believe it’s either very or somewhat important for kids to learn a second language, according to a 2007 Gallup Poll; 70 percent of respondents said that instruction should begin in elementary school.
But while our spirit is willing, it appears our flesh is weak. The share of high schools offering language courses is holding steady at around 90 percent, yet the percentage of elementary schools offering language instruction slipped between 1997 and 2008 from 31 percent to 25 percent, according to a survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics. Meanwhile, the share of middle schools offering such instruction fell from three-fourths to about three-fifths.
That’s a trend federal education officials hope to reverse. “This is a high-stakes issue. For too long, Americans have relied on other countries to speak our language. But we won’t be able to do that in the increasingly complex and interconnected world,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared at a CIA foreign-language summit in 2010. “To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak, and understand other languages.”
Barrett Karr has taken Duncan’s message to heart. She and her husband enrolled their 3-year-old son, Tilman, in Mandarin class at Language Stars in Alexandria, Va. “We think it’s a language that’s helpful, given where the global economy is headed,” Karr said. How helpful? When the boy is old enough, his parents hope he’ll win a lottery slot in a Mandarin-immersion charter school. If more young people make similar commitments, the biggest winner could be the U.S. itself.
The author is a National Journal reporter and researcher.
This article appears in the July 28, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.