In a multilingual world, the United States remains a mostly monolingual country. Even though roughly 70 million Americans speak a language other than English at home, almost 80 percent speak English only. In Europe, almost two thirds of working age adults report knowing at least one foreign language. While over 300 million Chinese students are studying English, only 200,000 or so American students are studying Chinese.
Americans’ foreign language complacency may stem from the knowledge that English remains the language of international business and diplomacy and is by far the most commonly studied second language around the world. But others’ knowledge of English is no substitute for Americans’ knowledge of foreign languages.
The war in Ukraine serves as a wake-up call to Americans to make competence in foreign languages an urgent economic, national security, and educational priority.
The U.S. government once recognized the importance of expertise in foreign languages and cultures. Spurred by Cold War tensions and the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 and Fulbright-Hays in 1961, in part to help meet the country’s need for foreign language and global studies expertise. Support surged in the aftermath of 9/11, but fell sharply after 2011. It has yet to recover.
A 2020 Council on Foreign Relations report notes that at the State Department, “language-designated positions overseas are 15 percent vacant, and 24 percent of those staffed are filled by officers who do not meet the minimum language requirement.” The Defense Department has over 30,000 language positions, many of which it cannot fill. This deficit has greatly hampered the United States in diplomacy, intelligence gathering, war fighting, and nation building.
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