We've all heard the old joke that someone who speaks two languages is called "bilingual," and someone who speaks one language is called "American." The shame is that so few of us Americans are bothered by that.
In a post I wrote back in December titled "Setting Our Kids Up for Tech Career Failure," I argued that our willingness to allow schools to drop foreign language instruction as a cost-cutting measure will yield a very costly predicament for our children:
The message being sent to our kids is that having a second language in their career-building arsenals is inconsequential. Given that the competition for STEM jobs will only become more global in scope by the time these kids enter the work force, we're handicapping them by failing to prepare them with the international perspective and globally oriented skill set that they'll need to succeed.
Since then, it's only become more obvious how beneficial it is to be bilingual. A nationwide survey conducted earlier this year by CareerBuilder and USA Today listed the demand for bilingualism as a key employment trend for the second quarter of 2010:
Employers are diversifying their workforce to appeal to broader consumer segments, including building bilingual teams. One-third (33 percent) said they plan to hire bilingual candidates in the second quarter. Half (50 percent) said that if they had two equally qualified candidates, they would be more inclined to hire the bilingual candidate.
What that means is that if employers can't find bilingual candidates who are U.S. citizens, they'll have no choice but to go abroad to recruit them. And yet we still don't get it. According to a U.S. government-funded national survey conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), foreign language instruction in elementary schools decreased from 31 percent in 1997 to 25 percent in 2008. For middle schools, the decrease was even more disturbing: from 75 percent to 58 percent.
Still, there was a bright spot, according to the survey: The percentage of schools offering Chinese and Arabic has increased. An article in The New York Times that cited the CAL survey pointed out the growing interest in offering Chinese:
No one keeps an exact count, but rough calculations based on the government's survey suggest that perhaps 1,600 American public and private schools are teaching Chinese, up from 300 or so a decade ago. And the numbers are growing exponentially. Among America's approximately 27,500 middle and high schools offering at least one foreign language, the proportion offering Chinese rose to 4 percent, from 1 percent, from 1997 to 2008, according to the survey.
A decade ago, most of the schools with Chinese programs were on the East and West Coasts. But in recent years, many schools have started Chinese programs in heartland states, including Ohio and Illinois in the Midwest, Texas and Georgia in the South, and Colorado and Utah in the Rocky Mountain West. "The mushrooming of interest we're seeing now is not in the heritage communities, but in places that don't have significant Chinese populations," said Chris Livaccari, an associate director at the Asia Society.
If this trend continues, and if we can somehow summon the communal will to reverse the trend of schools abandoning foreign language instruction, we will have taken a major stride in improving the value proposition of homegrown talent. We will have given our kids the chance to be considered for jobs they'd otherwise lose to bilingual candidates, many of whom will come from other countries.
It's time we stopped whining about those candidates taking our jobs, and did something to enhance our own competitiveness. It's OK to be the butt of a joke, but not when it hurts our kids.