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Deficiency in Foreign Language Competency: What Is Wrong with the U.S. Educational System?

Probably many readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education watched recently the unforgettable moment in which Luis Urzúa, the last of the trapped Chilean miners, stepped out of the “Phoenix” capsule after 69 days of anguish and hope, hugged his family members and then said to the Chilean president in firm and clear Spanish: “Señor Presidente: Le entrego el turno” (Mr. President: you are now on shift). They then had a very emotional conversation in front of the TV cameras. A friend of mine who was among the more than 1 billion viewers worldwide watching this special moment later sent me an e-mail from the U.S. sharing her frustration with not being able to understand what was said. “I was astounded that minute after precious minute, CNN didn’t provide any translation of what was being said. The hosts never even piped down long enough for us to be able to hear the emotion and jubilation in people’s voices. …  Finally after 10 minutes, a translator could be heard at the top of the broadcast. …  This was such a missed opportunity,” my friend wrote.

Among those of us engaged in international education, it is considered a basic premise that, in today’s knowledge-based global economy and society, a full command of at least one second language is a core competency that should become mandatory for all graduates of higher-education institutions. It is also generally acknowledged that, higher-education institutions and entire educational systems should dedicate more serious efforts to go beyond mere lip-service to students by making sure that competency in a foreign language is really acquired at a functional level.

It doesn’t take much to realize that the U.S. trails far behind other countries on the second language issue. Moreover, we constantly receive clear signals of the need to more seriously discuss the appropriateness and feasibility of implementing a second-language education policy. At the same time, we hear voices telling us that such an idea is just another unnecessary notion. The rationale used by many who justify this widespread second-language deficiency is that English is today’s lingua franca.

(“Why bother? People around the world speak english, just call some help line and you will find out.”)*

This is in reality just an easy excuse used to avoid seriously addressing an acute problem which affects future graduates and, in the long run, the entire society and its competitiveness.  All educators know that to build new cadres of graduates of our higher-education institutions who are to be characterized as being internationally competitive, multiculturally aware, and able to work in a global context, much more needs to be done in translating the rhetoric and good intentions into concrete realities. This includes better work in areas such as internationalization of curriculum, mobility of students and, of course, mandating instruction in at least a second language to a competent degree. This is not an easy sell, however.

(“Yes we live in a world with many languages. But, if you take the time to LEARN, you will find that most of those other countries which teach a second language, teach ENGLISH, because they know it is the language of BUSINESS around the world.”)*

There are plenty of anecdotal cases showing that this is possible and feasible. Last weekend, I visited Northern Arizona University in the beautiful city of Flagstaff.  My family and I were participating in a university tour on behalf of one of my sons who is considering studying there. While having lunch at an Italian restaurant, the waitress–an English-speaking NAU student–heard us speaking in Spanish, and began chatting with us in such perfect Spanish that we were pleasantly surprised. She told us her story of having a good Spanish teacher in high school and continuing with further study at the University. “Was it difficult?” we asked. Her response: “Not really, but it requires interest, time, good teachers, and persistence.”

I could also share countless occasions on which adults in the U.S. have confessed to me how sad they feel that they are not able to speak a second language. I frequently hear the nostalgic complaints of many telling me: “I studied a second language when I was in high school, but sadly I never practiced it and, consequently, I lost it.” I usually ask if they regret it and until now, nobody has responded no. However, it is encouraging to hear many of them telling how, in contrast, their kids became globetrotters and speak other languages. I know through personal experience that this is possible if, beginning early on, kids are encouraged to learn foreign languages and are provided with appropriate tools. At home, my kids speak English, Spanish, French, and one of them even speaks Hindi. When he chose such an “unusual” language to study, I was curious about his rationale, considering that many in India also speak English, and he responded to me: “Because I know that I must speak Hindi, if I want to think in Hindi.” Last summer, he enjoyed the benefits of this wise decision while spending two months in India experiencing the country and its people in a way that would simply be impossible without a command of Hindi.

According to data collected by the British Council in 2005, Mandarin was the most spoken language in the world, followed by English, Hindi, Spanish, and Russian. However, by the year 2050–when children who are born in 2010 will be at the peak of their productive lives–the most widely spoken language in the world will still be Mandarin, followed by Spanish, while the number of people speaking English will be approximately tied with Arabic as the fourth largest language group, followed closely by Hindi/Urdu. Even considering English as the lingua franca of business, Mark Davis back in 2004 did an interesting breakdown of the percentages of world GDP by language. He calculated that by 2010 English would represent only 28 percent of the global market, followed by Chinese, Japanese, German, and Spanish. Also, it is not necessary to travel outside of the U.S. to realize the importance of a second language. Just take the case of the Internet. From 2000 to 2005, according to the British Council, worldwide, the percentage of Internet users for whom English was the primary language decreased from 51.3 to 32 percent. Likewise, worldwide Web pages in English decreased during the same period from 60 to 45 percent.
All of the above again confirms the need to more fully embrace a second language competency policy.

A truly multicultural society as is that of the United States has an excellent opportunity– not existing in many countries–to pursue more actively the learning of at least a second language to add value for our future generations. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources “at home.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 303 languages spoken in the U.S., including 134 Native North American languages. At least 20 percent of the population age 5 years or older in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home. After English, the most commonly used languages are Spanish (34.5 million speakers), Chinese (2.5 million), Tagalog (1.5 million), French (1.4 million), Vietnamese (1.2 million), German (1.1 million), and Korean (1.1 million). Such a richness of languages and cultures should be considered a great advantage rather than–as seems to be happening in recent years–a negative or detrimental aspect of U.S. society. A multicultural society is present in all communities all over the country.

A month ago, my family and I, along with another 75,000 Tucsonans, visited the “Tucson Meet Yourself” festival in which more than 80 languages, nationalities, cuisine odors and flavors, were mingling and mixing together in a vibrant celebration which confirmed for me at a very local level how diverse our contemporary world really is.

At the risk of being accused of political incorrectness, I must say that embracing an interest in the learning of a second language doesn’t weaken a society but rather strengthens it. It doesn’t go against national unity and identity as is argued in some ethnocentric political circles by shortsighted cronies.

(“30 Years ago this country was the strongest economy in the world but now we are allowing so many different cultures to come join that now we are struggling. Study why the fall of the Roman Empire happened? Everyone wanted to go be there and when they became so diverse, they became weak.”)*

I am aware that this is a discussion full of controversy and that many individuals have strong opinions. Recently, a friend who is a successful Hispanic-American business woman told me a story demonstrating this type of anxiety. She was chatting in Spanish with her mom outside her home. Suddenly, a woman driving a car, stopped, opened the window of her car, and screamed at them: “Speak English!” Then she drove off. My friends were astonished by this unexpected and rude comment from a stranger who apparently didn’t know that my friend is a proud U.S. citizen and that at her home they are fluent not only in one but three languages.

Usually when I give lectures to higher-education students, I conduct my typical non-scientific survey about internationalization. I begin my speech by asking how many of them consider that speaking a second language and having an international experience will be very important contributors to success in education and work in today’s world. Always, only one or two per 100 attendees don’t raise their hands. Such an overwhelming response in favor of internationalization contrasts with the response to my second question to them in which I ask how many of them consider that they will have such an opportunity during their university studies. At this point, the response is nearly always the opposite: Only, 2 percent to 5  percent raise their hands. This paradoxical difference in responses is telling us something. It should serve as a wake-up call to educators.

I wonder if such a huge dissonance between perceived needs and expectations among future graduates is sustainable or are we failing to do our jobs. I wonder if higher education has a role to play in fully embracing this second-language enterprise. I find the reasoning and arguments against doing it untenable. Even more accurately, I find them irresponsible. It is obvious that higher education is not the only party that should be involved in this matter, but it is certainly the last chance in the educational pipeline. It is our last chance.

I know that there are many reasons and arguments put forward for why this idea should not be acted upon. In addition to the lingua franca notion, it is argued that parents would resist including a second-language requirement in the elementary and secondary levels of the education system; that the curriculum in higher education is too heavy and doesn’t allow time for the inclusion of language courses; that there are an inadequate number of properly trained teachers to properly teach students; that it is difficult to choose one language over another since it may create political problems; or that adding a set of  language courses would be too costly and would require additional infrastructure that, especially given the current financial situation, institutions simply cannot afford, etc., etc.

However, if we are serious about our rhetoric on global awareness, international competitiveness, and cross-cultural sensitivity, as nearly every higher-education institution pompously claims, we should do more than just print a blurb in our flyers or Web sites. Otherwise, we will be continuing to act as portrayed in a wise Spanish saying:  Hacemos como que les enseñamos y ellos hacen como que aprenden (We act as though we teach them, and they act as if they are learning)

* (Please note: The various paragraphs interspersed throughout this post in parenthesis  are comments–typos and errors included–that were posted in reaction to a commentary in The Hill newspaper in which Rep. Judy Chu, a Democrat from California and the first Chinese-American congresswomen, endorsed the PRIDE Act, a piece of legislation proposed to promote multilingualism in U.S. schools. Considering the results of the recent elections, the proposed law will most probably be lost in limbo).

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