THE BLOG

Monolingual Myopia

03/20/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Debates are sizzling about the efficacy of American education in preparing students for the global economy. Graduates face escalating competition as millions of recent job entrants hit the market from expanding middle-class economies such as India, China and Brazil. Of all the competencies that have the potential to set young Americans apart as they seek jobs, languages are most often overlooked. Recent statistics at both the high school and university levels reveal startling and preoccupying inconsistencies between a globalizing career environment requiring proficiency in more than one language and American students' curricular choices.

One measure of declining interest in language is the Advanced Placement Program, where in 2014, students took a total of 197,208 examinations in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. While that number may seem large, it is less than 5 percent of the almost 4.2 million AP examinations taken that year. Remarkably, far more students -- 259,789 -- took the AP psychology exam.

The most common AP language is Spanish, as one would expect. However, the increase in the number of examinations in Spanish Language from 2013 to 2014 was flat. Enrollment in Chinese Language grew dramatically when it was first introduced as an AP course in 2007. Annual increases as high as 32 percent have fallen to only 6 percent in 2014, when a total of 10,728 students took the AP Chinese exam.

America's colleges and universities also report a slowdown. Since 1958, the Modern Language Association has conducted comprehensive surveys of enrollment in languages other than English at U.S. institutions of higher education. Its 2015 report reveals a 6.7 percent decline in enrollment in such courses (comparing 2013 data to 2009 data). This reverses a trend of steady increases.

In reference to the report, a Feb. 19 article in the Washington Post speculates that business, technology and new course offerings may be pulling students' focus away from languages.

I'll counter with two other hypotheses. First, Americans may be reverting to a belief in "English language exceptionalism." Yes, English is the accepted lingua franca of international business and U.S. students may therefore feel another language is unnecessary. Perhaps if their only competitors in the global job market were other monolingual Americans, there would be no cause for concern. But the global job market will include a very crowded field of well-educated graduates from Europe, China, Mexico and many other countries who have mastered English on top of their mother tongue. The reality of the 21st century job market is that Americans will be competing for a job where, with other competencies being equal, they will be compared to a multilingual candidate.

A second explanation for anemic language enrollment may be that students are taking the easy way out. There are no quick rewards in the study of another language. Language skills must be built over time; real fluency comes easily for very few and must be constantly cultivated if it is to be maintained. For many, enrolling in Mandarin or Italian may represent an academic challenge with the potential of pulling down a student's GPA, an unacceptable outcome in this hyper-competitive world.

I don't wish to make the argument that the only reason to study another language is because of the benefits it might yield in a job search. There are rich rewards in being able to travel to another place and converse with people in their own language. And there's a whole separate discussion about the benefits to humankind when we understand each other's cultures better -- a result that can in some measure be achieved through language study. Finally, consider the cognitive benefits of bilingualism (such as improved ability to concentrate, increased brain efficiency or delay in dementia) that have been highlighted in many recent studies.

The Modern Language Association report does conclude that areas of stability or growth can be found in more advanced language study: "There may be fewer students taking courses in languages other than English, but the ones who are enrolled are often going further than ever before and presumably are being put in a position to gain greater proficiency than ever before." The reason for this is beyond the scope of the report, but this is a trend that bears watching.
Ultimately, I fear U.S. students may not be receiving the counsel that they need when selecting their courses. The schools and colleges themselves are failing America's young if they let students slip through their education in an English cocoon.