The title of this post was taken from the International Business Times. Well, I think everyone is pretty aware that the United States, as a culture, does not place much importance on learning foreign languages nor foreign culture for that matter.
Sure, in high school I had to take two years of a foreign language, but I went to a privileged high school. This is only because I was planning to attend a very good university; otherwise, it was not required. We also had fun things like wood arts and ceramics, which were considered no less important than the French or Spanish classes that we could choose from. I guarantee that many parts of the country do not have funds nor do they place importance on learning a foreign language. Besides, how useful are just two years of study?
As a whole, we tend to be a very linguistically egocentric society. And with the help of the British, we have succeeded in making most of the world speak our language if they want to do business or have relations with us. Think about it, does the president even speak a foreign language? If he does, I am sure I am not aware of it because nobody places language skills as an important factor when you are competing for leadership of the most powerful nation in the world. Weird, isn’t it?
Anyway, this gap in our linguistic awareness is becoming a thorn on our side as we start to suffer the consequences of our lack of foreign language proficiency. Let’s take a look at the Iraq war for example. How many soldiers had the slightest notion of how to speak the local language while they were raiding villages in the middle of the night? They are given basic language training just before a raid without probably ever having to know how to really communicate with the locals.
Anthony Grafton, professor of History at Princeton University, writing in the The Daily Princetonian, a university newspaper, addressed the problem in regards to the military, “Sadly, many Americans don’t see the point of studying foreign languages at all, since the world seems to have learned English,” Grafton said. “I wish everyone could speak, as I have, with a veteran of the Iraq war who has done house-to-house searches at night without the benefit of a competent interpreter.”
There are various reports that also illustrate the problems and disadvantages that exist due to a lack of language proficiency in the U.S. Military. I have the utmost respect for our military and I honor the young men and women that risk their lives to fight for their country, but is it really fair to send them to war without even understanding what the opponent is saying?
“For the United States to get to where it needs to be will require a national commitment to strengthening America’s foreign language proficiency,” said Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the CIA Foreign Language Summit in December 2010. “Mastery of a second language allows you to capture the nuances that are essential to true understanding,” Panetta told attendees. “This is not about learning something that is helpful or simply nice to have. It is crucial to CIA’s mission.”
John Carlino, executive director of the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers, says, “It’s important to point out that if everyone else speaks our language, but we don’t speak other languages or understand other cultures, we are at a huge disadvantage in the global market.”
“When you learn a foreign language you begin working parts of the brain you do not normally use. It increases intelligence, communications skills, higher-level thinking skills, critical analysis. Brain and language acquisition research has shown that the earlier one starts and the longer the duration of exposure to another language, the deeper, quicker and longer lasting the learning will be,” Carlino stressed.
Martha Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, agreed. “It’s very naïve to say ‘the world speaks English,’ therefore I don’t need a foreign language,” she said. “Who has the advantage in business when they know your language and you don’t know theirs?”
The U.S. ranked 26 on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, which is conducted every few years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In my opinion, this score is pretty pathetic for a world superpower. The top 10 ranked countries happen to require foreign language proficiency in their schools.