The percentage of American college students who become proficient in a foreign language is pathetic compared with that of other countries. According to the U.S. Department of Education, out of every 100 college credits taken by U.S. students in a given semester, only 8.6 are for studying a foreign language.
“In sheer numbers, more American college students than ever are studying foreign languages,” said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, a New York-based group of more than 30,000 academics that promotes the study of foreign languages, in a phone interview from France.
“But as a percentage of total college enrollments, the number of American students who take foreign languages has decreased since the 1970s.”
By comparison, a recent survey by Eurobarometer in the 27-country European Union found that 56 percent of Europeans speak at least one language in addition to their mother tongues, up from 53 percent five years ago. In Luxembourg, one of the world’s richest countries, 99 percent of the population speaks a second language, while 97 percent of Slovaks and 95 percent of Latvians are proficient in a second tongue.
About 28 percent of Europeans speak two foreign languages, up from 26 percent five years ago, the survey showed.
Ms. Feal is optimistic that Americans will reverse the downward trend.
“9/11 has created an awareness of the need to know more about the rest of the world, and the best way to know is learning the languages of the world,” she said. “And parents are recognizing the cognitive advantages of learning a foreign language early in life. It makes kids literally smarter: Studies show that the bilingual brain learns everything better.”
This is not a question of whether Americans, and especially immigrants, should improve their English-language skills. Of course they should. But, as the Europeans and, increasingly, Asians are showing, there is nothing in the human brain that prevents children from learning a foreign language without being able to excel in their mother tongue.
A second language would not only make future generations of Americans more employable, but would make the United States more competitive in the world economy, more alert about what is going on in the rest of the planet and, ultimately, more secure.