College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Foreign Language Policies: Is Everyone Else Really Speaking English?

By Heather Singmaster — September 01, 2015 6 min read
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Only 25% of Americans speak a second language. We rest on our laurels as speakers of English, believing that everyone else is learning our language—the language of business. And in many countries across the globe, English is being taught. However, studying English doesn’t always equal fluency or even a conversational speaking level (think back to your one or two years of high school Spanish or French!). Plus, not everyone is on the English bandwagon—by some estimates, 75% of the world does not speak English.

Let’s explore some of the policies other countries have regarding English—and why they matter to the U.S.

We are losing money

A recent and well-publicized report by the Pew Research Center showed that most European students are learning a second language, and for a majority of them, this means learning English (over 90% of secondary students and 73% of primary students). However—and this shouldn’t come as a surprise—Ireland and Scotland, two native English-speaking countries, are the only countries in Europe that currently do not require students to learn another language (but in fairness to Ireland, their students learn in English and Irish).

Starting in 2016, taking language classes may be voluntary in Britain as well. But having the same arrogant attitude toward learning languages as the U.S. could cost Britain. James Foreman-Peck of Cardiff University estimates the potential income lost from international trade because of a lack of language proficiency is around 3.5% of GDP or £59 billion ($90 billion)—something he calls the “gross language effect.” Can you imagine how much larger that number would be if the same study was done on the U.S.? As Nick Brown, a business leader, said: “English is fine if you want to buy things, but it’s not the right language to use for people who want to sell things.” In other words, learning a language is your key into the local culture and local economy.

Not all native English-speaking locales are waiting for the world to learn our language. In New Zealand, where 20% of students currently study a second language (the lowest percentage since the 1930s), Auckland is developing a regional languages strategy. This is seen as a first step toward increasing language offerings in schools to build capacity to meet increasing tourism and trade demands.

Canada is also ahead of the United States. We all know they speak French in Quebec, but in Toronto, an extremely diverse city, 2,000 elementary students were studying a second language for free over the summer, courtesy of the Toronto District School Board. “It’s not only first generation newcomers, but it’s second and third generation young parents who want their children to understand their cultural and linguistic background,” says Karen Falconer, the Executive Superintendent of International Education.

Here in the U.S., our growing diversity is helping to drive the demand for translation services, which is now our fifth fastest-growing occupation. Just look at Houston, one of our most diverse cities, which is facing a shortage of local interpreters. The Houston Independent School District (HISD), recognizing these challenges, is committed to the teaching of world languages. Arabic is the second most spoken language in the city after Spanish, so it makes sense that HISD opened a public Arabic immersion school this year, the first in the country. But not everyone agrees: a dozen protestors outside on the first day felt that these students should be receiving English-only education.

We are limiting higher education
An increasing number of universities across Europe and the world are mandating that at least some courses, if not entire programs of study, be taught in English. But not all faculty agree with these policies, which are usually set by the administration. In Italy, the Milan Polytechnic administration moved to teach masters degrees in English only. But the faculty cried foul and are trying to block it. The policy is currently under consideration by the Constitutional Court—the highest court in Italy.

Even if university faculty agree with English language policies, that doesn’t mean that they can immediately flip a switch and teach with the same degree of expertise in English—or that students will have the same degree of comprehension. Take for example France, where there was a huge uproar over allowing universities to teach courses in English, which was outlawed until the summer of 2013. With many policies in place to protect the French language, the country has the weakest English skills of all European countries.

Anna Kristina Hultgren, a lecturer in English language and applied linguistics at Britain’s Open University, has studied Nordic countries where there is a high degree of English ability. Even so, she found that having to cope with English instruction meant professors and students progressed much more slowly in their courses.

And in places like South Africa where there is still a huge disparity in the education of blacks and whites, English instruction leaves behind black students. “The young people who are from groups that were marginalized under apartheid are still marginalized, and those who were privileged are still privileged,” says Russell H. Kaschula, a professor of African language studies at Rhodes University, in South Africa.

Iran and Iraq are two of the lowest ranking countries on the Education First English proficiency index. If we are going to be involved in security issues in these nations, we need to speak their language—conversing with the locals opens many doors and leads to better intelligence information. CW2 Rachid Akhrid, a Military Intelligence Officer in the United States Army, states that his language and cultural abilities saved his unit more than once, including the time they were lost and he was able to get directions from the locals to get everyone back to base.

We continue to face large shortages in speakers of critical languages like Arabic and Persian, not to mention Korean and Chinese. This could be the motive for a bipartisan group of members of the House of Representatives who recently asked the Department of Defense (DoD) to put more funding for world languages back into the 2016 budget. The DoD wanted to cut $31 million out of the $261 million budget of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.

English may not always be number one
Malaysian parents are concerned that learning two languages—English and Malay—is not enough to be successful. So now many are pushing their children to learn a third— this often means Mandarin, as it is seen as opening doors to future jobs. Some parents are even favoring Chinese over English as China’s sphere of influence grows in the region.

Malaysians aren’t the only ones learning Chinese around the globe: 750,000 people took the Official Chinese Language Proficiency test in 2010. While Chinese is not going to replace English anytime soon, it is growing in importance. In the U.S. alone, college enrollment in Chinese courses has jumped up by 51% since 2002.

Cognitive benefits
We should not forget about the many cognitive reasons to learn another language, which I have outlined in a previous post (ward off Alzheimer’s, plus grow a bigger brain!). Japan feels its students, who are studying abroad less than in the past, are growing too insular and are seen as bored and not very motivated, and therefore, less competitive in the international economy. One way the government is combating this is by lowering the age that students begin to learn English from age 13 to age 10 (5th grade). Rachel Sharp, Head of Languages at Cambridge International School, agrees with this idea. She says that language study is a way to overcome apathy, increase tolerance and acceptance of others, and enhance life skills. Why wouldn’t we too want this for our youth?

Not everyone is speaking English, and we can’t expect them to. There are so many benefits that we are currently missing out on in our monolingual bubble: enhanced business opportunities, smarter kids, stronger national defense, and better communication within our local communities just to name a few. So what do you say, America: can we stop turning a deaf ear to the rest of the world?

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Image courtesy of iStock.

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