Education Commentary

Innocents at Home

November 16, 1994 6 min read

But we are living in a fool’s paradise. At issue is more than bad manners and sloth. Our long-term economic well-being depends on how well we know our customers. As Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) says in his book The Tongue Tied American, you can buy in any language but you sell in the language of your customer.

Compared with the competition, American ignorance is striking. Years ago, long before Japanese dominance in household and commercial electronics, the head of the Sony Corporation spent a year in New York City learning English. As history shows us, there was method to his madness. (It works both ways: Owen B. Butler, the C.E.O. of Procter & Gamble when it became one of the few truly successful American players in the Japanese market, attributes much of Procter & Gamble’s success to his knowledge of Japanese. Other American companies, take note.)

Beyond the anecdotes, the numbers tell a sobering story. While Americans logged more than 45 million foreign trips in 1992, very few Americans were serious students of foreign languages or area studies. Of more than one million bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1991, one tenth of 1 percent were in language or area studies, and only a tiny fraction of all students in higher education studied abroad. While America is host to nearly half a million foreign students--40 percent of all those who study abroad--we send only 71,000 of our own students abroad each year.

Although there are numerous small barriers to U.S. study abroad--ranging from faculty indifference to confusion about student aid to uncertainty about transferring credits to worries about security--none of these obstacles, singly or together, are insurmountable. Indeed, they reflect rather than cause indifference to study abroad.

Happily, there is one bright note. Many liberal-arts colleges (described as the International 50 in a monograph of that title) send as many as a third of their students abroad. They do so because they are convinced that language and area study make sense. Yet most of these students go to Europe, and frequently live in American “ghettos” when they get there, minimizing their language exposure.

What influences language study in the first instance? Both at home and abroad, two factors are overwhelmingly important: economic incentives and graduation or college-entry requirements. Abroad, second languages are studied because they are useful, both on a daily basis and for a lifetime of work and pleasure. As a consequence, schools abroad require second and even third languages. Few schools do in the States. But when they do--as Maryland has for the past two years--enrollments skyrocket.

Why is this important? To recast the famous judicial dictum, language study delayed is language study denied. Without a thorough grounding in the early years, it is almost impossible to acquire enough competence to be proficient as a college student. Unhappily, there is another force at work in America, worse even than indifference to language study--antipathy toward it: A witches’ brew of anti-intellectualism and nativism further inhibits language acquisition.

Finally, most Americans assume that language study has no economic payoff. Indeed, American study abroad inversely correlates with economic activity, revealing an asymmetry that is quite startling. In 1991, for example, our trade deficit with Japan was $41 billion; that same year 41,000 more Japanese studied in America than Americans studied in Japan. In 1991, Taiwan sent more than 37,000 students to the United States (while we sent fewer than 1,000 to Taiwan); our trade imbalance was $11 billion. With the Peoples Republic of China, our trade imbalance was $10 billion while more than 45,000 Chinese students studied in the United States; incredibly, only 783 Americans studied on the mainland in 1991. The pattern was the same with South Korea: With a U.S. trade deficit of $4 billion, 28,000 South Koreans studied in the United States; the number of Americans studying in South Korea was too small to report.

In Western Europe, too, the pattern is much the same. The United States ran a trade deficit with Germany of $9 billion in 1991, yet Germans were nearly twice as likely to study in the United States (6,273) as Americans in Germany (3,486). (A final oddity is that of Americans who study abroad, 62 percent are women, the mirror image of foreign students in the United States, 62 percent of whom are men.)

A wag (or an economist, if there is a difference) might note that those countries with big trade surpluses can afford to send students to America. But it is a chicken-and-egg issue; they can afford to because they do so well in the American market. That’s why they have the surplus to begin with. But they “need” to as well. Ours is still the world’s biggest and most important economy, and we dominate global markets. But our dominance will continue only so long as we understand the global market of which we are a part.

A story related by Senator Simon, perhaps apocryphal, makes the point. The Chevrolet Nova, a great success in the United States, bombed in Latin America because no va means “won’t go” in Spanish. (An observer would be forgiven the question, “If you’re so rich, how come you’re not smart?”)

Clearly, culture tells. And the sad fact is that neither economic nor intellectual motives have had enough power to overcome cultural indifferences to foreign study. So far.

Times are changing, however, and the process of change can be accelerated. The Goals 2000 act, signed into law by President Clinton last March, will put intense pressure on the nation’s schools to offer language instruction on a large scale. Seven million more language classes a day would be required to meet the minimum targets, a quintupling of high school enrollments.

Equally important, for the first time since World War I (when German was not only widely taught in many schools but was often the language of instruction), large sections of the United States are becoming de facto dual-language areas. Today, the second language is Spanish; and if bilingualism is not far behind, it may be time to make a virtue of necessity and offer serious instruction in both Spanish and English.

Be that as it may, the case for increased language and area studies is so self-evidently strong that it is time for policies to dramatically increase them. Two come to mind:

  • (1) We should rationalize federal scholarship and loan programs to emphasize language and area studies. (Or, for those with a taste for the grand gesture, we might create a land-grant-colleges program for the 21st century, reflecting the global, knowledge-based economy.)
  • (2) We should strongly encourage our prosperous trading partners to offer study-abroad opportunities for Americans. Time for Fulbrights in reverse, on a large scale.

There is one more important piece to the puzzle. Employers who care--international business and government agencies--should declare themselves by letting their clients know just how important the issue is. One thing in American life remains unchanged: Money talks, and a convincing economic justification for language study and study abroad would send students running.

Finally, technology is the great unrealized hope of education reform and renewal. High-quality hardware is available and fiber optics will extend its reach. And some good commercial software exists (Transparent Language, for example). But the real breakthrough will be digital, interactive video of the kind the U.S. Naval Academy is piloting. One thing is sure about software: If demand for language instruction increases, a strong market response will not be far behind.

Even with the best of intentions, however, the old chestnut about the quintessential final exam comes to mind: “Which is the greater problem, ignorance or apathy?” The preferred answer, of course, is “I don’t know and I don’t care.” So far, that’s how we’ve treated language instruction.

But if Americans are relentlessly provincial, we are also congenital optimists and inveterate pragmatists. If for no other reasons, then, we are likely to grasp the nettle and begin to seriously attend to language study and study abroad.

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 1994 edition of Education Week as Innocents at Home