Americans and Foreign Language Skills II

Kevin Carey has reignited a perennial debate over whether the fact that Americans are much less likely than citizens of other developed countries to speak foreign languages really matters.

Not that I think studying language is a waste of time. I just would have been better off spending that time studying this language, doubling up on English literature, writing, rhetoric, etc. I know that students in other countries around the world are generally much more likely to study multiple languages. But that’s partially a function of geography–places like Europe are much more multi-lingual. And it’s partially because they’re not here. If there was a huge country somewhere else that dominated the world’s economy, culture, and commerce, I’d want to learn their language. But I live in that country, so I don’t have to.

Ezra Klein takes no position on the larger issue but thinks,

. . . it seems pretty clear American students should stop learning so much French. Unless quite a few more folks than I think plan on doing development work in Africa, the absurd amount of French-language education going on in schools makes no sense. Indeed, the choices offered by most schools seem a century or so out of date. You generally get classes in Latin, French, and the type of Spanish spoken in Spain. All good things, but given that each language taught is another language not taught, why we’re not throwing those resources into Chinese and a nearer dialect of Spanish baffles me.

Megan McArdle also declines to take a stand on the issue but is happy any time French is dissed. I think we can all agree on that!

Carey is quite right on the overall issue, too. As I argued in a longish post on the subject a couple years back,

While it’s theoretically a shame that few Americans speak a second language (my German is exceedingly rusty), the practicalities of the issue suggest that it’s rather futile to try and change this fact. In most of the non-English speaking world, the decision of what “second” language to learn is relatively simple: English. French was a reasonable alternative for decades but the ascendency of the United States as the leading political, cultural, economic, and military power in the postwar era has eliminated serious contenders. Conversely, for an American not living in a part of the country with a huge Hispanic population, the choice is much less simple. Aside from Chinese, which itself has many rather divergent dialects, there is no language spoken by that sizable a chunk of the world. And, of course, Chinese isn’t spoken in many places outside of China. Arabic, perhaps, if one would like to enhance one’s chances of employment by the federal government. But German, French, Urdu, Farsi, Portuguese, Japanese, and any number of other major languages simply don’t provide anything like a universal translator key useful for a would-be world traveler. The utility of having American children devoting years mastering a language other than English is rather dubious from any utilitarian standard I can think of.

Dave Schuler, responding to my post, added,

An American living in Omaha can travel a thousand miles in any direction and not end up in a place where English is not the primary or, indeed, the only language spoken. There is nowhere in Europe from the western shore of Ireland to the foothills of the Urals in the east where you can travel a thousand miles and find the same language the primary language. Multiple languages is a survival skill in Europe and the differences in Europeans’ life experiences is reflected in their assumptions about what makes sense for other people to do.

Further, he correctly notes that the underlying assumption about Americans’ dearth of linguistic ability misses a crucial point,

I’d go a little farther. I don’t have the hard statistics to back this up but I’d be willing to bet that there are more Americans that speak Spanish than in any other country than Mexico, more Americans that speak Polish than in any other country than Poland, more Americans that speak Russian than in any other country than Russia, more Americans that speak Italian than in any other country than Italy, and so on for dozens of languages and countries.

And if this war on radical Islamist terrorism goes on for very long there will be more Americans that speak Arabic than in any other country. Period.

They just won’t be employed by the United States government, apparently. But, yes, Americans, like people anywhere, are happy to learn languages when they have some need to communicate in them.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Education, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I generally agree with all of the above.

    However, I would add that the study of Latin enhances one’s English. I damn near aced my SAT verbal because of my expanded vocabulary (Latin roots and all that). Latin also helps if you plan to go into law or medicine (which I thought seriously about when in high school).

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I started reading your post, James, then started rifling through my archives to find my post on this subject. The, lo!, I reached the end of your post to find what I’d written quoted.

    I think there’s another question to which I have no idea of the answer: does learning Indo-European languages that are relatively easy for English speakers to learn (like Spanish or German) help them learn difficult non-Indo-European languages? Frankly, I doubt it. I think it’s more the other way around: English speakers who learn languages easily learn non-Indo-European languages more easily than those who don’t.

    There’s another, peripherally related set of questions. Which Arabic? Which Chinese? That there are 400 million speakers of Arabic and 1 billion speakers of Chinese is a bit of a gloss. Arabic and Chinese, both languages with mutually incomprehensible “dialects” are actually multiple languages. Which of the hundreds of African languages should we be teaching in our schools?

  3. NoZe says:

    Just a minor point…isn’t the Spanish taught in public schools primarily the Mexican variant? I believe that’s what I studied in high school and graduate school, and all of the Spanish teachers I worked with in my past life in academia spoke Mexican Spanish.

  4. James Joyner says:

    NoZe: Interesting. I presumed they taught Castillian Spanish, but maybe not. I took German.

  5. dutchmarbel says:

    You should speak foreign languages better and more often….

  6. jpe says:

    I took spanish in high school, so it’s rusty to say the least, but I’ve been getting better at it since living in NYC. When I’m hungover and need the awesome tacos at the spanish only joint down the street, it really is a matter of survival.

  7. Maggie says:

    While you might need Spanish to order a taco, wasn’t there a French minister who spoke English in delivering his speech in Europe earlier this year.

    I remember Chirac becoming incensed and walking out of d’affaire in protest.

    The minister defended himself declaring that English was the language of international business.

    As long as technology, science, new innovations are created, financed, and promoted mostly by English-speaking persons, English will continue to be the language of Business, the language of the movers and shakers of the world.

    We can all get hand-held translators for our 711 purchases.

  8. John Burgess says:

    Back in the early 60s, I had Spanish in my 8th grade class; it was Mexican Spanish. I changed schools after that year, so didn’t follow up. Instead, I started Latin in HS. Then we went overseas and I continued the Latin and took up Turkish (living there provided adequate reason). A few years later, I was learning Thai, Laotian, some Cambodian, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

    In university, I went to French after deciding that Russian class, at 0830, wasn’t for me. Once in the Foreign Service, it was off to Arabic (with a quick refresher in French).

    I’m still eager to learn new languages. Irish and Polish are what I’d like to do, if I could find the time and teachers.

  9. Triumph says:

    First of all French is an official language of two of our top ten trading partners–including our largest trading partner. As such it is an important global language vital for our national interests.

    I am not sure who in the hell Ezra Klein is to tell people which languages to study. French is only studied by 18% of US school children who study foreign languages anyway according to the ACTFL.

    As for David Schuler’s silly statement, I’ll bet him a million bucks:

    I don’t have the hard statistics to back this up but I’d be willing to bet that there are more Americans that speak Spanish than in any other country than Mexico,

    There are 31 million people in the US who speak Spanish in the home, according to the census. Both Spain and Columbia have populations in excess of 40 million. Argentina’s population is 39 million. While each country has minority languages, Spanish is taught in all schools and ubiquitous in each country.

  10. James Joyner says:


    But English is the dominant language of Canada and most Quebec businessmen likely speak it.

    So, 31 million Americans speak Spanish in the home. Which means they are native Spanish speakers. Is it your view then then there are not 10 million people out of the remaining 270 million who don’t speak Spanish as a second language? Indeed, I’d guess there are that many second generation Americans who spoke Spanish in the home as a child.

  11. Cernig says:

    Ah, the smell of American hegemony and American exceptionalism.

    As Michael Van Der Gallen (writing from Belgium)at the Moderate Voice says:

    A superpower that stops being interested in the world surrounding it, a superpower that has become so arrogant that it believes that everyone should speak the language spoken in before-mentioned superpower, is in the very real danger of alienating the entire world and it seems not, umh, very smart to me, to close one’s borders for information and knowledge from other countries.

    One of Michael’s commenters has the following thought-provoking anecdote:

    Speaking to a focus group of American businessmen, a researcher asked the following question: “In what language should business be conducted?”

    “English, of course,” came the unanimous reply.

    The researchers then convened a group of Japanese businessmen and asked the same question, “In what language should business be conducted?”

    Their reply? “In the language of our customers.”

    It truly is note-worthy that so many from India and China speak American-syle English, eh? It proves the economic superiority of America, hands down. Right up until its time to learn Urdu or Mandarin – at which time the Divine Mandate crew will turn into the Past Glories Of Empire crew between one breath and the next.

    Regards, C

  12. James Joyner says:


    I think these are different issues. None of us is arguing that learning a foreign language is not a good thing. The question is whether it makes sense for most Americans to learn a given foreign language in high school.

    I learned a reasonable amount of German, for instance, because my dad and then I were in the U.S. Army during a time when stationing in Germnay was commonplace.

    In high school, though, the only language available was French. Had I learned it, it would have come in handy approximately four days in my life since then. Presuming I hadn’t forgotten most of it by the time I needed it.

    Speaking and reading Arabic would be useful to me now and I would be happy to learn it if someone were willing to pay me to do so. There was not a time when I was in school, though, when it was obvious that Arabic was the most important second language for a national security studies scholar to understand.

  13. Z bethel says:

    I am an american and so are my four parents we have no latin background. We only speak english, in my community there are very large hispanic population. I am not able to update my education and or employment because 95% of employment ads require bilingualism(spanish and english) the problem is ESOL is taught to others free of charge and we “americans” have to pay enormous amounts to learn spanish and any other foriegn languages. When are our elected officials going to realize that this problem is and will continue to exist until there is equal opportunity to all. Imported americans and domestic especially since our tax dollars are paying for it.