February 12, 2011

Why English is Insufficient

As someone who grew up attending an International High School that emphasized the importance of foreign language ability, it was shocking to me to find this was an extraordinary circumstance. Only 31% of Americans will leave elementary school with any education in a foreign language. Of these 31%, however, only 20% will be taught in a way that stresses the need for proficiency and does not focus on basic vocabulary. It is also shocking to learn, in most places, English is the only mandatory course for all four years of high school. One can get by with just two years of foreign language and three years of math, but three years of English is out of the question.

The issue facing Americans is the unwillingness to change. Americans used to believe it was sufficient to be proficient in English, because all business was conducted in English as a universal language. With rapid convergence of what were previously developing economies, there is a growing need to communicate in languages other than English. Additionally, we as Americans have grown increasingly reliant on off-shoring and outsourcing, which has heightened our need to communicate with countries like China, India and Brazil. A shocking 24,000 children in the United States are currently enrolled in Chinese, while their counterparts in China encompass a population of over 200 million.

Americans, in my opinion, are unable to cope with the "catch-up" effect and the idea that other economies are now taking off the way in which the United States did during the Industrial Revolution. In time, these economies could pose a dangerous threat to the United States and we need to be ready to approach this issue head-on. In a world where iPods are being produced in China and the city with the most Starbucks locations is in Europe, there is a great need for America to strengthen its ties to other countries. The easiest way to do this is through language.

The solution to this problem is easy and straight-forward: Americans need more exposure to foreign language. This could be done through funding new programs in public schools for foreign language or through a mass media or social networking site. It needs to be understood that foreign language is not a chore, but provides essential tools and can be something that is extremely rewarding. There is no better feeling than being in a foreign country and able to strike up a conversation with a worker at a hotel or a waiter in a restaurant that goes beyond, "Hi, I don't speak ______. Can you help me find ______?" Americans need more exposure to foreign cultures so they can find reasons for which it would be rewarding to travel and to learn more. If we can successfully do this, we too will continue to be dominant in the globalized economy. We must understand that English, alone, is insufficient.

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