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 two 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.