Let's Stop Being the Butt of the Foreign Language Joke

Don Tennant

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 18, 2010 12:43 PM Melanie Melanie  says:

Hello Don

The CAL report is depressing - how can the US have regressed when the rest of the world is moving forward?  This is especially frustrating when you consider that study after study demonstrates that younger children learn - and retain - foreign languages better than teens and adults. 

Another resource for you - the below National Education Association (NEA) policy brief lists foreign language eduation as a key component of global competence.  




Lango, foreign languages for kids


May 19, 2010 4:38 PM Multilingual Mania Multilingual Mania  says:

It's so frustrating that people in the US continue to have this mindset that we don't need to be bilingual in a global economy. We have many children in this country who speak another language other than English, yet their native language is suppressed and they are forced to speak only English. Unacceptable!!

May 31, 2010 3:52 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

I would point out that while in High School, I studied both German and Spanish.  Did I become fluent in either?  Well, no.  German and Spanish also aren't languages that I conduct business in.  I can sing a mean Oh Tanenbaum, so not a total loss  

But, another thing I would point out about our American culture: we have the least amount of vacation time and work the most hours when compared to other developed nations.  I can't seem to find time to learn another language.  I'm too frickin' busy working!

At least my kids are going to be bi-lingual.  They speak Japanese and English.  Of course, they have time set aside to learn.  All my spare time is spent acquiring skills to compete in this super-competitive IT career.  Sorry, but unless the work-life-balance equation changes I don't see myself with the time to learn new languages, about art, or the finer things in life.

Oct 26, 2010 1:58 PM Lizzie Lizzie  says:

I'm an American, and I speak French and English.  I'm not completely fluent in French, but I speak it well enough to have a competent conversation and I'm working on becoming fluent.  It's really a shame that most Americans don't think it's important to learn a second language.  I've traveled to other countries - ones where English is not the Lingua Franca - you can usually find a lot of people who can understand it.  I guess that's why, though - because people outside the U.S. speak English, a lot of Americans don't think they need to bother.  It's embarassing.

Au Revoir!


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