Recently, the digital news site Axios noted that “Europeans keep lapping America on foreign language learning,” drawing on a study from the Pew Research Center. The executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Marty Abbot, sees this as a very bad thing, as she makes clear in an interview with Axios. It occurs to me that it would be rather awkward if the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages didn’t consider the teaching of foreign languages an especially high priority, but I digress.
At the risk of coming across as a parochial boob, I’ll admit that I’m skeptical that this is a big problem. Learning a foreign language can be enormously enriching. But when we consider how many U.S. adults are functionally illiterate, it is not obvious to me that foreign-language learning should be our highest priority. I’ll settle for English-language learning, which is woefully inadequate.
Then there is the framing. To say that Europeans are lapping Americans when it comes to foreign-language learning is to suggest that there’s some sort of competition that we Americans are losing. The Europeans are up, and we are down. As it turns out, though, the foreign language of choice among Europeans is . . . English, as Pew noted in 2015:
Learning English has been growing more popular in EU nations, with the share of young students studying English as a foreign language more than doubling from just 35% in 2000. Meanwhile, the share of young students studying French and German has remained below 15%. Governments (and parents) may have their eye on preparing students for a global economy in which English is seen as the dominant language.
The reason English-language instruction is so popular in Europe should be obvious. It has emerged, despite the objections of many, as the continent’s lingua franca, and indeed as a kind of global lingua franca, as evidenced by the fact that there are 1.5 billion English-language learners around the world, making it the world’s most commonly studied foreign language by an enormous margin. (This is one reason I find it so baffling when people argue that expecting non-humanitarian applicants for green cards to have a decent command of English is somehow draconian.) Add in the 530 million or so native speakers of English and you have a pretty decent-sized chunk of the global population. If I were Danish or Hungarian, I might well see the wisdom in learning a language spoken, with varying degrees of fluency, by over a quarter of the world’s population, and a far larger share of the world’s affluent population. Far from losing in a competition with Europe’s language learners, monolingual Americans are in fact bolstered by their race to learn English: Rising English-language fluency abroad further entrenches an existing American advantage.
Granted, it could be I’m missing something important. According to Abbot, U.S. firms are desperately searching for multilingual employees, but they can’t find them. First, it should go without saying that this is a pretty good reason for Americans to learn foreign languages on their own. That more of them aren’t rushing to do so should give us pause, unless, of course, Americans have lost interest in finding good-paying jobs.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that individual Americans aren’t up to the task of signing up for language instruction themselves. One would think that U.S. firms could address this problem by, say, subsidizing it, or recruiting more heavily among foreign-born workers who have the requisite language skills. Is it because they’re actually quite content to rely on translators? Not according to Abbot, who says that “business often doesn’t get done at the business table, it’s done in social situations and side events.” Fair enough. Note, though, that getting business done in social situations and side events requires a high degree of cultural knowledge, not just language skills.
If doing business informally is the real issue, and relying on translators or on increasingly sophisticated machine translation just won’t cut it, you’d think businesses would be clamoring to hire workers with native-level fluency and insider cultural knowledge. In short, you’d think they’d be desperate to hire immigrants adept at transnational code-switching. Yet there is a large and growing literature on “brain waste” among college-educated immigrants to the U.S., that is, the fact that large numbers of college-educated immigrants in the U.S. are relegated to low-skill employment.
There are many potential explanations as to why this is the case — one explanation is that educational attainment doesn’t always translate into marketable skills, especially when we adjust for educational quality. Another explanation is that employers are overlooking a large pool of capable, multilingual workers, for no obvious reason. This could be a sign that foreign-language skills aren’t quite as valuable for English-speaking Americans as Abbot suggests.
No, I’m not telling you that learning a foreign language is for the birds. There’s much to be said for learning a foreign language to gain a deeper appreciation of another culture, or to have a more satisfying experience when traveling abroad. I’m all for teaching foreign languages in schools, provided it is done cost-effectively and not at the expense of the teaching of basic literacy and numeracy skills. But I find it hard to believe that foreign-language instruction is an economic imperative, especially since so many people around the world are eager to learn English.