What a Coca Cola Ad Taught Us About Language Policy in the U.S.

For a country that considers itself the world's superpower, its citizens are shockingly deficient when it comes to having a knowledge of foreign languages.
02/06/2014 02:51 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2014

Last Sunday night, millions of American crowded televisions sets to watch the Super Bowl, an annual sporting event so synonymous with American culture that Le Monde, a French newspaper, dubbed it "the other 4th of July." During the game, Coca Cola ran this minute-long spot featuring a variety of people singing "America the Beautiful" in a variety of languages.

Within minutes, a veritable firestorm erupted on Twitter. The hashtags #SpeakAmerican and #FuckCoke began trending, with users saying things like, "This is America. We speak English." Conservative political icon former-Congressman Allen West had a post up on his website before the game was even over quoting American president Teddy Roosevelt, saying, "We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, and American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house..."

The controversy highlights some uncomfortable truths about America's complicated relationship with bilingualism and foreign language learning. For a country that considers itself the world's superpower, its citizens are shockingly deficient when it comes to having a knowledge of foreign languages. As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted, "Only 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53 percent of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language." Put in a global perspective, the U.S.'s overwhelming monolingualism is an aberration: according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, "Available data indicate that there are many more bilingual or multilingual individuals in the world than there are monolingual."

It didn't always used to be this way. Many of the United States' founding fathers spoke French, Italian, or Spanish, or could read a classical language like Latin or ancient Greek. Martin Van Buren, the 8th president of the United States, learned English as his second language -- his first being Dutch. Legend has it that James Garfield, the 20th president, could write simultaneously and ambidextrously in Latin and Greek.

Fast-forward to today, when bilingualism has, at times, been a political landmine. In 2008, Barack Obama, who is monolingual, was roundly criticized by conservative groups for supporting early-age foreign language education in American schools. What did Obama say exactly? "Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English -- they'll learn English -- you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language."

Other aspirants to the presidency who have been able to speak foreign languages have been mocked for their linguistic prowess, including Mitt Romney and John Kerry, who both speak French, and Jon Huntsman, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who speaks Mandarin Chinese. But men like these are the exception in the U.S. and will remain so, especially as schools have cut funding for foreign language programs. As an article published in Forbes entitled "America's Foreign Language Deficit" points out, the state of foreign language instruction in the U.S. is, well, not great:

- The percentage of public and private elementary schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 31 to 25 percent from 1997 to 2008.  Instruction in public elementary schools dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent, with rural districts hit the hardest.

- The percentage of all middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 75 to 58 percent.

- The percentage of high schools offering some foreign language courses remained about the same, at 91 percent.

- About 25 percent of elementary schools and 30 percent of middle schools report a shortage of qualified foreign language teachers.

- In 2009-2010, only 50.7 percent of higher education institutions required foreign language study for a baccalaureate, down from 67.5 percent in 1994-1995.  And many colleges and universities, including Cornell, have reduced or eliminated instructional offerings in "less popular" languages.

This leads us to the greatest irony of the entire controversy: Coca Cola is a global brand that hails from a country that's becoming less and less adept at producing global leaders. Only a quarter of the world's population speaks English. (I say "only a quarter" because citizens of Anglophone countries often act as if this percentage is much higher.) That means that Barack Obama, who was hailed as a transformational leader who would repair America's global image, can only communicate with a quarter of the world's population -- except though translators.

But speaking a second language is about much, much more than simply knowing vocabulary and grammatical structures; it can actually change the way you view the world. For that, translators simply won't do the trick. For instance, recent research has shown that speakers of "non-futured" languages, like Finnish or German, are more likely to save more money for retirement and are less likely to smoke or be obese than speakers of "futured" languages like French or English. See this video for more on those findings -- it is fascinating.

It appears, perversely, that the ineptitude of the world's richest country and largest economy when it comes to learning foreign languages could hamper its ability to remain globally competitive. According to the council on foreign relations, "Nearly 30 percent of the U.S. economy is now wrapped up in international trade, and half of U.S. growth since the official end of the recession in 2009 has come from exports." Domestically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that market for interpreters and translators will grow by 42 percent between 2010 and 2020. For a country that's been mired in an employment crisis for the better part of five years, encouraging more people to pick up a phrasebook doesn't seem like such a foolish idea.

All of the talk about employment statistics aside, it appears that that America's bilinguals, like the ones featured in the Coca Cola ad last night, will have the last laugh in this debate. From a greater resistance to the deleterious effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, to enhanced cognitive flexibility -- that's a fancy name for what a layman would call creativity -- and decision-making abilities, the advantages of being bilingual are numerous and well-documented. It seems, then, that those who now plan to boycott Coca Cola have a lot more to learn from those featured in the commercial than the other way around.

Whether you do it to better your mind or your résumé, try learning another language this year.