America's Monolingual Kids: A Threat to Competitiveness?

Last Updated May 12, 2011 6:55 PM EDT

How much American kids are and are not learning -- and how they compare to those in other nations -- is a perpetual topic of conversation, with the debate concluding, more often than not, that our kids just aren't measuring up in math, science or some other key area. Now, the president of the Modern Language Association, Russell Berman, is adding another item to the list of American education's deficiencies -- our failure to teach foreign languages.

In the organization's summer newsletter, Berman, who is a professor at Stanford University, argues that, "to worry about globalization without supporting a big increase in language learning is laughable." He calls for a greater commitment to language instruction and calls out politicians, saying:

budget attacks on language programs from the Republicans and Democrats are just the contemporary form of a xenophobia that suggests we don't need languages -- and it's deeply, deeply misguided.
Berman makes his case for more and earlier language instruction in economic terms, calling monolingualism "a disadvantage in the global economy. If you get off the plane in Germany and take a cab, you can't count on the driver speaking English. I would call that a disadvantage." Is Berman right? Will American kids, like German taxi drivers, need foreign languages to compete in the global economy of the future? Are we letting them down by not teaching them to be multilingual?

Anyone who's traveled broadly in Europe can tell you that Berman is correct that American kids (excepting of course bi-lingual children of immigrant families) are laughably far behind students there in foreign languages. A recent study did find that 'fluent' was one of the words on your resume most likely to impress hiring managers, and many parents who hope to give their kids an edge in life believe foreign language skills offer a leg up. It's hard to argue against the idea that a second language is a good way for individual applicants to stand out from the crowd.

On the other hand, basic competence in their own language eludes a shocking number of high school grads (trust me, I used to teach college composition -- it was frightening). Should we really be taking resources and classroom time away from English when so many fail to master it at a sufficient standard for career success?

Still, it seems like a bit of an insult to suggest American kids can't master more than one language when throughout continental Europe (at least the northern part) nearly everyone is multilingual. Is there any reason U.S. kids should be less able to learn languages than Dutch or Danish ones? But perhaps the better question is not whether American kids can learn foreign languages, but whether they should bother to, considering how large America is and how limited most students use of foreign languages usually is.

What do you think, is American kids' monolingualism a real cause for alarm or something only a foreign language professor could get worked up about?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user Robert Scoble, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.