Americans and Foreign Language Skills

Amber Taylor issues a familiar lament:

Perhaps the greatest gap in the education of young Americans is our lack of focus on foreign languages. Even if a certain number of years of such instruction is required at some level, one can graduate knowing little and forget what’s known in an instant. If one stays in the USA, it’s easy to cocoon in the English only world. Travel, though, and one is confronted with the limitations of such an upbringing.

This hasn’t been my experience, actually, although my travels are somewhat limited. I have, however, lived overseas and spent considerable time in Western Europe and some time in the Arab Middle East. It has been my experience that a good number of people in those countries roughly my age or younger were able to speak passable English. Indeed, I have often been shocked at the extent to which this is so. For example, on a trip to Egypt three summers ago, I was a little surprised that the street beggars in Cairo, often kids who appeared to be 12 years old or so and whom I suspected had little formal education, could beg in reasonably proficient English. I was simply astounded, however, on our trip to Upper Egypt, which was a popular destination for German tourists, to find that the beggars spoke not only English but German in addition, presumably, to their native Arabic.

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.

FILED UNDER: Education, Middle East, , , ,
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. jen says:

    It’s funny you mention this. I was thinking about it eearlier this week when I was watching The Amazing RRace and pondering what foreign language I would try to bone up on (French or Spanish, both of which I know a very little) if I were to do that race. I realized that either language would only help a little and that I probably didn’t need much since most other countries are teaching English as a second language. In all locales that the racers go to, there are plenty of locals who speak very good English.

    I do think that if we’re going to require kids to learn a foreign language we’d be better served to start teaching it in elementary school as opposed to middle and high school. But I agree with you that it’s not a requirement so much to be able to get around in the world anymore.

  2. Joseph Marshall says:

    The “utility” of it increases immmesurably the earlier you start. It well known that bi-lingually fluent children who became so before age ten, generally have little trouble picking up further languages.

  3. Of course, I have my biases, but I see it as a waste of time. If someone has a particular need for a foreign language, fine. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s widely needed, especially when we are already so weak in math and science.

  4. Jeff says:

    When I was in Russia in ’92, the street beggars and kitsch vendors all spoke English, French, German and any language any of us spoke and pretended to be to try to avoid them.

    We saw them speaking Japanese to groups of Japanese tourists all the time.

    We happened on another group from the same program we were in at Moscow at one point and they told us that the one that usually got blank stares from the beggars/vendors was Spanish.

  5. John says:

    Man, I don’t think I can disagree with you more!

    Sure, if your measure of “utility” is being able to cope as a tourist in a country where everybody speaks some form of English, you might be right.

    I think that’s a pretty weak measure, though.

    If you want to understand anything about a country or a people, you’d better damn be sure you can speak their language.

    I’ve been in many situations–professionally and personally–where the Engish I was getting back was not at all what was being said in the native language. Sometimes it was merely a matter of nuance; often is was something completely other.

    My career–and my father’s career–took me around the world. Consequently, I had to learn four languages up to a level of professional competence, if not native fluency. Being able to understand where someone is coming from–something you can only learn from understanding how his language molds his world view–is critical unless you’re there just to enjoy the sights.

    And even though I’m no longer in that line of business, there are still a half dozen languages I want to learn. Some are so that I can manage to be something other than a lump in another country. Some I want to learn so that I can read books written in those languages, books that are badly translated, or not translated at all.

    My wife, who has lived–if not worked–around the world, spoke five languages before she even got to university… her parents sent her to Spanish grammar schools in Argentina, to French high schools in Paris. And even though she’s “pure” American, Italian was her very first language.

    Even my teenage son speaks very good French and is trying to decide whether to learn Spanish, Russian or Arabic in university. He doesn’t plan on living in any of the countries where those are spoken, but he wants them because they open new doors of experience to him.

    I think you set your standards pretty low, I’m sorry to say.

  6. zz says:

    I think there are some disadvantages of everyone knowing English. It’s hard to keep information from foreigners and it is too easy for them to pick our brains and scientific literature. The result is knowledge gained from research bought and paid for with expensive American dollars can be exploited for free by people in other countries.

    Maybe we should resort to a WWII trick and teach Americans Navajo.

  7. OF Jay says:

    I’ll have to go with Robert Prather on this one. I’m of the mind that mandating a foreign language course in public school is a waste of time and utility for the sheer, simple reason that if someone wanted to communicate with Americans, they should communicate with us in English.

    It was a rumor when I was in high school that anyone in France trying to talk with the French in English would be ignored — not even asked to speak in French — and that the only way to catch a Frenchman’s attention was to speak to him in broken French, which then warranted an arrogant and condescending response. My conventional wisdom at the time was that I’d have had looked for what I needed from someone else other than such a Frenchman, not learn French.

    There are notable exceptions, such as the Japanese who generally treat business with the same mentality that I just exhibited in the first paragraph, but the response is to take courses as needed, but this is in the realm of private enterprise already, not public education.

  8. Jay,

    I’m not sure if I’m being dissed or not. People who need to speak foreign languages should learn them; those who don’t, shouldn’t.

    If I go to France (ahem) and expect to stay for any length of time, it would be desirable for me to learn French. Even polite or necessary, depending on situation. In a few years we will have pretty cheap technologies that will do the translation for us. That seems much more efficient to me than spending weeks or months learning a foreign language, particularly if it will only be used intermittently.

  9. OF Jay says:

    I’m not dissing you at all, Robert, although I see where the confusion may have arisen, which is my insistence on others to learn English, which is just as fair as the hypothetical Frenchman insistence to have those who want to speak to him learn French. I apologize for any unintended tone of derision; I did not mean to sound like it. In fact we’re quite of the same mind on this subject.

  10. SFC SKI says:

    Robert “If someone has a particular need for a foreign language, fine.” That’s a bit like having a flat tire and saying, “If I’d known I was going to have a flat, I’d have learned how to change this tire”
    The problem with this line of thought is that by the time you need that language, it may be too late.

    Mind you my perspective on foreign languages comes from my job, where speaking the correct foreign language, in my case Arabic, is somewhat like using a fire extinguisher, you don’t need it every minute, but you very glad you have it if there is a fire.

    Secondly, people who can learn one foreign language can usually learn another more easily, especially once they are adults. There is something to be said for the belief that learning a foreign language helps a person better understand theri native language, but that is more anecdotal as far as I know.

    Lastly, kids are capable of learning more than one language more quickly and more easily than most adults, therefore it would make more sense to give children an exposure to foreign languages early in their educational life, it expands there ability to learn a foreign language later in life if the need arises. It will also help them if they need to hawk souvenirs to tourists 😉

    Jay, I can only say that from my experience speaking the language of whoever it is you are dealing with increases your chances of success in attaining your goal in that dealing. Being stuck in a country somewhere trying to get your engine fixed by screaming loudly in English “Fan Belt!” is not going to get you where you need to go.