States Opinion

The Unfortunate Monolingual American

By Anthony Jackson & Kaitlin E. Thomas — July 03, 2014 4 min read
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This blog frequently covers the many benefits of learning more than one language. Yet many students do not have the opportunity to do so and heritage language speakers are often told to learn English. Today, Kaitlin Thomas writes that America’s lack of support for second languages is putting our place on the world stage at risk.

In the international community, desire and expectation to learn second languages are practically one in the same, yet one can’t help but notice how lacking such a sentiment is here in the United States. Worse is how the expectation of our students to become well-rounded multilingual and multicultural communicators has become little more than a tedious box to check while completing academic requisites, the dreaded “have to’s” of learning curriculums.

As the world around us masters English as a second language, it may be time to consider whether or not such disinterest (and often downright indignant refusal) is ensuring that the U.S. will eventually find itself at a severe disadvantage; isolated from the globalized world and left behind in monolingual self-importance. Such worldwide demand to speak English at a fluent and eloquent level is dictated in part by the perception of it being a language of access and opportunity, a notion perhaps complimented by its beckoning American “land of opportunity” counterpart. Newcomers find that to do well in American universities, get a well-paying job, or to successfully acculturate into this complicated and fast-paced society, requires the ability to converse at a high level of English (are we not the nation of independence, self-sufficiency, and competition?). An intimidating challenge to be sure, yet these English language learners share a key trait: the shrewdness that in order to prosper, they must learn a different language and learn it well.

Contrary to long-held stereotypes of what “opportunity” and “success” look like for immigrants (Chinese restaurants, Latino landscapers, etc.), a revealing 2011 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy illustrates how many have leveraged mastering English to find considerable professional and financial success. According to their findings, first and second generation immigrants have founded more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies, and in fact (pay attention here), revenue generated by these companies surpasses the GDP of every country in the world outside of the U.S. These are staggering achievements that speak volumes towards the potential that lies with becoming multilingual and multicultural.

Clearly, the connection has been made in the international community between second language fluency, prosperity, and global access. These perceptive individuals made wise choices at the right times and were roused by the type of unique grit that develops when possessing the freedom to chase and build dreams. But what if the traditional “land of opportunity” is no longer limited exclusively to the United States? Suppose globalization has created space for other nations to step up and offer financial, professional, and personal opportunities that are, dare we say, better than what is available in the U.S.?

While foreigners are hungry to learn English in order to succeed within American borders, statistics suggest that the same cannot be said for Americans attempting to keep up in a competitive global market that is more and more housed in nations where English is not the first, or even the preferred, language. Projects such as the Asia Society’s Mapping the Nation, ominously explicate how roughly only one in five states have more than 25% of students learning a second language, that merely a quarter of AP assessments include international topics, and a confounding 1% of American high school and less than 10% of undergraduate students participate in study abroad opportunities. Too often world language programs and modern language departments are challenged with severe funding limitations, inadequate hiring opportunities, and even total elimination on the absurd grounds of scholastic insignificance.

Simply put, American disinterest in acquiring language skills to adapt to linguistic and cultural situations in which they find themselves is hurting an entire nation’s likelihood of maintaining a predominant role in 21st century world matters. World interconnectedness coupled with the savvy of other world powerhouses has dictated that English is no longer the language needed to join the exclusive and elusive club of success and opportunity. With such realities directly challenging the traditional monolingual mindset to adapt in order to keep pace, two obvious and urgent certainties have emerged: the untapped potential that multilingualism and multiculturalism could hold for American communities, and the mounting shortcomings perpetuated by continued ignorance, exclusion, and rejection of the need to support world language learning.

Kaitlin Thomas is Visiting Instructor of Spanish, Washington College; Instructor of Spanish, Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth; and Latino Migrant Coordinator, Maryland Migrant Education Program.

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Photo credit: powerofforever/istockphoto

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