Do you speak more than one language? Are you a U.S. citizen? If you answered yes to both then you are in the minority. The U.S. not only trails the rest of the world in language learning, but current political trends seem to be pushing it away from engaging with other nations.
In the past few years you’ve probably heard the words nationalism and populism thrown around, such as in relation to events like Brexit. The U.S. has also shifted somewhat towards insularity, as rhetoric and policy stances have called for “America First,” a move some pundits would call nationalism. A side effect of nations who turn their focus inward can be growing suspicion of, or apathy towards, other nations, cultures, and languages.
Back in 2017, a found that foreign language learning across the U.S. has significantly declined. The U.S. is already behind other nations in language learning—in European nations many adults speak two or more languages. In the U.S. A, only . Far more Chinese students are studying English than American students studying Chinese. The U.S. is a very rare country in that you can graduate from higher education without proficiency in a foreign language.
But does that matter? Yes, it certainly does. Even in a nationalist society.
What is nationalism?
Nationalism is loyalty and devotion to the nation state or to the creation of one. Being devoted to one’s nation isn’t a bad thing—it’s the reason why there has been great advancements in many countries. National solidarity makes sense as a means of social cohesion, and in that way nationalism is sometimes defined as similar to patriotism. But, how we currently use the term in the media discourse today is quite different. Patriotism is pride in one’s country or land. Nationalism is viewed as extreme patriotism, : “Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination. By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries.”
You might hear the term “right wing” tacked on to nationalism to usually mean a viewpoint that discourages immigration, multiculturalism, or using resources on other countries.
Nationalism can impact language as well, and vice versa. The argument of what language a nation speaks is a contentious one, as language is a marker of national and cultural identity. In Ukraine, there were debates over speaking Russian or Ukrainian. Hebrew was revived to become the primary official language of Israel. In the UK, there was fear over English changing as more immigrants moved into the country. , saying “This hard-headed association of language with national identity was at the core of an extreme version of nationalism that led Europe to two world wars.”
We speak English. We love English. Do we need anything else?
Yep, sorry, but you should be studying some foreign language verb charts probably right now!
English has become a , and the most studied language in the world (great news for anyone wanting to be an ESL teacher!), but there are still billions of people that don’t speak it. About 6 billion people in fact. That’s a whole lot of people you can’t talk to. But beyond wanting to make 6 billion more friends, , and will make you smarter in other areas of school and life.
It’s great for your job prospects too, as the world becomes more globalized and people immigrate, knowing a foreign language can help you get more jobs and earn more money. And that’s not just for you, . What is a country going to do if it’s citizens can’t engage in international trade and business?
And not only does a citizenry with high quality foreign language skills help a nation prosper economically, it also helps keep it safe. It’s vital to national security. Being able to speak other languages can be key to protecting our countries from terrorist attacks and epidemics. Even someone who might adhere to an isolationist nationalist sort of view would agree that economic growth and national security are important!
Multilingual presidents in the U.S.
If foreign languages are so important to our country, then what our U.S. leaders? What languages are spoken by our presidents, current and past? The answer is a bit surprising.
First off, how many languages does Trump speak? Our current president speaks only English, although his family speaks multiple languages, including the First Lady. But Trump is only the latest in an unfortunate presidential tradition for the U.S. A—the country hasn’t elected a president who was fully bilingual in !
Many recent presidents have been conversational in other languages—Barack Obama in Indonesian, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter in Spanish, Bill Clinton in German. But, they haven’t been fluent.
Two theories to the current lack of bilingual and multilingual presidents are 1.) the U.S. became so powerful that other nations learned English, so U.S. leaders didn’t need to learn another language and 2) bilingual presidential candidates did not go over well with voters and bilingual politicians have been teased mercilessly. Republican presidential candidate for his (fluent) French, as was Democratic candidate John Kerry. But even when bilingual politicians aren’t teased, showing off a second language doesn’t seem to boost their popularity. Multiple Republican candidates in the last election spoke Spanish, some fluently, but it did not appear to help them in their bid for presidency.
were more than conversational in other languages, with a number of bilingual presidents and even multilingual presidents in U.S. history, such as:
- Thomas Jefferson Jefferson spoke French and Spanish, and studied Italian, Latin and Greek. (Latin and Greek are both common languages spoken by presidents in the past - all the cool kids were doing it.)
- John Quincy Adams Adams was fluent in French and Dutch from studying as a child in France and the Netherlands, and learned German as an adult.
- Martin Van Buren Van Buren was the first American born president AND the first/only president who didn’t have English as a first language, a testament to a nation of immigrants. His first language was Dutch.
- Herbert Hoover Hoover was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, as was his wife, and they apparently would speak it to each other so that others couldn’t overhear their conversations.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt . He spoke German and French fluently, having been educated by governesses in the language
Why it’s more important that we learn foreign languages now than ever
The U.S. , and much of the world, might be in a wave of nationalism, but that’s no reason not to study a foreign language. In fact it might be more of a reason. If “Make America Great Again” turns out to mean pulling the U.S. away from the international spotlight, that could start to tip the linguistic power balance. A power vacuum could mean that China or Russia steps in to the gap, and their own languages will rise in importance.
What’s more, there may well be a “.” As foreign language education falls in the U.S. , but demand for the skills is still high, who will step into that gap? Skilled, multilingual non-Americans. No one is coming to “take” anyone’s job - but if the U.S. doesn’t want to teach foreign languages, they will practically be giving jobs away in our global economy. If the U.S. wants to compete on the national stage, especially with countries like China, educating its own citizens is vital. Without a well-educated populace, no country can succeed fully. The must be stopped.
As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences put it “The ability to understand, speak, read, and write in world languages, in addition to English, is critical to success in business, research, and international relations in the twenty-first century.”
As other nations invest in research and try to trade with or influence (or invade) other countries, it might become a lot more important for us to know other languages if we want to read the latest scientific discoveries or engage in important business deals. Did you know that U.S. scientists were late to realize the seriousness of the avian flu epidemic because the research was published in Chinese? . How disappointing if a zombie apocalypse breaks out and it’s due to “scientists only spoke English.”
But even if nothing changes in the geopolitical structures, globalization isn’t going anywhere and foreign languages are important to keep citizens safe and the economy growing.
A prosperous, safe U.S. is one that understands and intelligently engages in the international sphere. And that means one with U.S. citizens that can engage internationally, including in other languages. To build an educated, engaged citizenry, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences report suggests that the U.S. government “Promote opportunities for students to learn languages in other countries by experiencing other cultures and immersing themselves in multilingual environments.” Only a little under . Under 2%! The U.S. is not investing in what’s called “human capital,” a population with the ability to learn, adapt, create, invent, and connect. Not to be melodramatic, but nations have failed because of low human capital.
Will skipping your French class contribute to national failure? Probably not…
… But if everyone in the U.S. continues to put foreign language education on the backburner, it will do nothing but harm. The U.S. must overcome obstacles to foreign language education - lack of funding and lack of qualified teachers especially—and enroll more students in high quality, immersive language instruction. A nationalist society or no, foreign languages matter. The research shows it, we know it, and now the nation must act on it.