The king's English won't rule forever
July 24, 2006
For most of their history, Americans have not had to
bother themselves with learning a language other than
English. With a few exceptions, foreigners' encounters
with Americans meant that the burden of learning the
other's language fell on the non-English speaker.
As it turns out, that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
In a world of rapidly expanding communications and
global markets, Americans might find themselves at a
disadvantage as the number of multilingual speakers is
accelerating in other large and growing economies.
Yet, recent surveys show that learning a foreign
language remains a low priority for American students
and at the schools and universities that teach them.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, fewer
than 8 percent of undergraduates take a foreign
language class each year, and only 1 percent of
undergraduate degrees conferred in a given year are in
a foreign language.
Many of today's college students graduate without a
working knowledge of a language other than English.
That might be fine for now, but many experts caution
that the global usage of English will gradually
Speaking English is becoming less of an advantage and
more of a "near-universal basic skill," concluded a
report released earlier this year by the British
Council, an international English educational
organization. For this reason, those who speak only
English, "face a bleak economic future," the report
Around the world, people are studying languages such
as Spanish and Mandarin. In Portuguese-speaking
Brazil, for instance, a 2005 law now requires all high
schools to offer Spanish courses as an alternative to
learning English. The Chinese government predicts that
within a few years, the number of people studying
Mandarin will rise to 100 million. And more and more
international students are choosing to study at
non-English speaking schools over English ones.
Although many people speak English today, it is
foolish to assume that English language skills alone
will be sufficient to thrive. We need to learn other
languages if we want to maintain a competitive
advantage in the global marketplace.
The British Council estimates that the number of
English speakers in the world will peak at two billion
in a decade or so and then decline. American students
who choose not to learn a second language will find
themselves falling behind multilingual speakers.
But besides economic benefits, learning another's
language helps us understand each other better. As a
society that celebrates cultural diversity, we should
realize the value of learning another language or two
to better appreciate and contribute to the colorful
world we live in.