Why Don’t Americans Know More Foreign Languages?

America is behind much of the world in foreign language education. What is it exactly that contributes to a language-learning culture, and what’s causing our foreign language deficit?
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Why Don’t Americans Know More Foreign Languages?

Call it the consequence of geographic isolation, a history of economic and cultural hegemony, or a culture of rugged independence, but for better or for worse, America has a foreign language education deficit. As of 2001, 26 percent of American adults were capable of holding a conversation in another language. But less than 1 percent are actually proficient in a language they studied in a U.S. classroom, even though 93 percent of U.S. high schools were offering foreign language courses as of 2008.

America is struggling to educate citizens that can compete on the world stage, many of whom don’t really see the point of studying a foreign language in a world that caters heavily toward English speakers.

Where did this linguistic isolation come from, and what’s the opportunity cost when 66 percent of the world’s population is proficient in more than one language, and 51 percent of students in the European Union are studying two or more foreign languages (a number that reaches 99 to 100 percent in Finland, France, Romania, Slovakia and Luxembourg)?

The Roots Of America’s Language Deficit

School requirements are a big part of what contributes to Europe’s language-learning culture — something we’re seeing less and less of in America. During the 2009-2010 school year, 50.7 percent of higher education institutions in the U.S. required foreign language credits for a baccalaureate, down from 67.5 percent 15 years prior. For high schools, there is no compulsory language requirement in any of the 50 states.

Teacher shortages are both a result of this problem and a cause of this problem. If we’re not raising bilingual citizens, we’re not raising qualified bilingual teachers.

Compare that to Europe, where most children are required to start studying their first foreign language between the age of six and nine and must have at least one year of foreign language study to enter university. In more than 20 European countries, the study of a second foreign language (that means knowing three languages total) is required.

Teacher shortages are both a result of this problem and a cause of this problem. Is it the chicken, or is it the egg? Without qualified bilingual teachers, it becomes even more difficult to improve the state of foreign language education in America. But if we’re not raising bilingual citizens, we’re not raising qualified bilingual teachers.

So how did America come to prioritize language learning so much less than Europe? Well, you could argue that since the first colonizers landed on our shores and eventually claimed independence, America has served as a rebuke to Europe. We wanted to do it all by ourselves — to not need England or anyone else. Our cultural attitude has been one of “no thanks, I’m good” since the very beginning.

If this kind of seems like a contradiction for a country of immigrants, you’re right. But immigrants to America have historically gone to great lengths to assimilate, and often, it only takes three generations for immigrant families to lose fluency in their native tongues.

After World War II, America cemented its dominance on the world stage, which led to the steady global takeover of English language and culture. Give it a few decades, along with some big shifts in technology and the global economy, and that’s how you get Elon Musk explaining why foreign language learning isn’t that important anymore.

Language Learning In Decline

For the first time since 1995, language enrollments in higher education dropped between 2009 and 2013. This leaves only 7 percent of American college students studying a foreign language.

But this could probably be traced back to the fact that elementary schools also dropped the ball between 1997 and 2008. In this time period, the percentage of public and private elementary schools with foreign language classes dropped from 31 to 25 percent. For public schools specifically, this amounted to a 9 percent drop, particularly in rural areas.

President Trump’s election may already be affecting the state of language learning, but this is definitely not the first time Americans have exhibited paranoid attitudes toward foreign languages.

In middle schools, foreign language instruction dropped from 75 to 58 percent, though high schools have managed to maintain a rate of about 91 percent.

And though America has never had an official language, there’s been more and more of an emphasis on “English-only” values in recent years, which has only compounded this de-prioritization of foreign language learning. Changing demographics within our borders, plus more economic competition from other countries, has made many Americans fearful of foreign influences and languages.

President Trump’s election in 2016 may already be affecting the state of language learning in America, but this is definitely not the first time Americans have exhibited paranoid attitudes toward foreign languages. We have absolutely been down this road before.

Are English-Only Americans Really Missing Out?

You could make a case that most Americans will get by just fine without a second language under their belt. English is more or less the lingua franca of the world, and the majority of the world’s most popular tourist destinations cater, at least a little bit, to English speakers. Many of the world’s inhabitants do study a second language, but in a lot of cases, that language is English. Touché.

Then again, we’re probably overestimating the global dominance of the English language. Less than a quarter of people in the world speak English, so it only follows that Americans are closing themselves off from 80 percent of the world (and countless professional opportunities).

Our military and intelligence agencies don’t have enough qualified applicants to choose from — only 74 percent of the State Department’s ‘language-designated positions’ were filled with fully qualified personnel in 2012.

Additionally, the U.S. government is grappling with a concerning lack of foreign language skills relevant to its diplomacy and foreign intelligence needs. Our military and intelligence agencies don’t have enough qualified applicants to choose from, and that’s why only 74 percent of the State Department’s “language-designated positions” were filled with fully qualified personnel in 2012. Essentially, our foreign language deficit is posing a national security risk. Without an ability to communicate with other countries (as well as understand what they’re saying about us in the media), we can’t adequately defend ourselves or build relationships abroad.

Beyond that, the many benefits of bilingualism are well-known, but here’s just a short list of perks monolingual Americans are missing out on: a sharper brain capable of better multitasking, a decreased risk of dementia, a higher salary, and better travel experiences.

We may very well be heading toward a technocratic future in which we live to serve our artificial intelligence overlords and languages are totally irrelevant (because we’re all speaking binary). But in the meantime, American experiences, careers, and minds could still benefit from exposure to another language.

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