On any street in nearly any city or town these days one cannot help but notice the property offices because their windows are plastered with ads for property to buy or rent. While I was walking down a London street recently, my attention was drawn to such a window only to discover that the ads that covered it were for jobs – jobs at national and international firms. Curious and somewhat suspicious about this glut of opportunity in hard times, I stopped to see what was available. There were probably thirty different openings, most for entry or middle level white collar workers, salaries between $35 – 60,000 to start plus benefits, and they all had one thing in common: the principal requirement was the ability to speak a language in addition to English. Dutch, German, Italian, French – lots of possibilities but the applicant had to be able to work in two languages.
The issue of learning one or more foreign languages in order to compete in a global rather than a local economy is one of the truly monumental obstacles for young Americans. It is not that Americans are “bad” at learning languages. Many more young people are taking advantage of opportunities to travel and our schools and communities are every day more diverse in terms of ethnic and linguistic representation so that traditional American isolationism is less and less a challenge. No. Our students are not learning foreign languages because, for the most part, the adults making decisions about their education don’t think it is very important. There is much documentation to demonstrate that young children have a particular facility for learning two or more languages simultaneously, yet even in our best school districts, most students don’t even have a choice, and it is invariably a choice not a requirement, to study a second language until middle school at the earliest. In addition, we don’t do a very good job of explaining to high school students why it might be worth their while to master a second or third language. In fact, a frequent “incentive” , that a couple of years of classroom language instruction might help them get into a better college or university, has nothing to do with the potential practical, competitive, or even educational and cultural benefits of knowing more than one’s native tongue.
Colleges and universities are not doing much to help this situation. Even the relatively few that have their own graduation requirements for foreign languages are not generally very discriminating about the preparation that their applicants may have had: “You took four years in high school but didn’t learn very much? That’s OK, you can start over again here or we’ll place you into the second year and you’ll just have a couple of semesters to complete the requirement.” This kind of enabling of mediocrity on the part of higher education sends just the wrong message. Why do the same colleges and universities that are currently looking at ways to “internationalize” or “globalize” their curricula not demand more in terms of the most authentic way to integrate into and understand how people in a foreign culture think, act and dream? Until recently it may have been partially accurate to point out that the world conducts its business primarily in English and to the extent that our colleges and universities are preparing students for the workplace, foreign language mastery may not have been at the top of the priority list. Yet problem solving for the future, just as it will demand the skills of more than one discipline, is also likely to demand a much more thorough understanding of all the people who are involved in contributing to solutions. Those solutions are becoming both global and interdisciplinary in scope as our “internationalized” curricula are beginning to grasp. Perhaps it is time to re-think more precisely just what skills American students will need to master if we expect them to compete with their counterparts in other parts of the world and be able to answer the employment ads that draw one’s attention on London streets even in the midst of the current crisis.