Enrollments in foreign-language courses at U.S. colleges have fallen 6.7 percent since the fall of 2009. Some public universities have closed their German, French, Russian and even Spanish language programs as they chase after student tuition and abandon programs that serve the public’s interests. The next annual report due out from the Modern Language Association in February will likely show further erosion in American student enrolment in foreign languages.
"I think we should have some institution comparable in stature to West Point or Annapolis, where the curriculum includes every language used officially throughout the world. We should never send anyone to any country, who is going to have any direct contact with the people of that country, who is not fluent in the language of that country. I have sat in on many meetings in which interpreters were used. It is almost impossible to translate the precise meanings from one language to another under the pressure of a meeting."
The biology building where I work is named "Breukelman Hall" after biology educator John Breukelman. He was very much a gentleman so I was therefore surprised at this forceful assertion. Professor Breukelman spoke fluent Dutch and Spanish and was exasperated that, while working on a biology textbook in Spanish in a South American country, he had to translate it into English for the U.S. Embassy where none of the staff spoke Spanish!
Linguistic stupidity has a price. In the hostage crisis where Iranians took U.S. Embassy staff captive at the end of the Carter administration, not one of our intelligence officers spoke Persian!
Failures in translation became clear to me when I arrived in China a week after the disastrous Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. Heartbreaking pictures were released of students buried in the collapsed schools. I watched both the Chinese and American news reports. As the bodies of high school students were recovered, our U.S. news kept calling them "middle school" students.
Therefore, American viewers presumed that Chinese education must be behind ours because these older students were only in middle school. The problem was that the Chinese name for elementary is "little school," their name for our high school is "middle school," and their universities are "big school." I immediately explained this by e-mail to both the PBS network and National Public Radio—and they did absolutely nothing. High schools continued to be called "middle schools" because that was their literal translation. The Chinese interpreters used by PBS and NPR did not understand our American school system names.
If you only speak English, you could come to China with me this summer. As long as you stayed on campuses, you can manage quite well speaking English. China makes English a school requirement. Students begin study of English in early elementary school. If every American began studying Chinese, we could not match them because they have more than 332 million students studying English!
But foreign students who grow up in their culture and study English do not fully understand America. Nor would American students who studied foreign languages fully comprehend other cultures. It takes both sides working together to prevent stupid misunderstandings that can escalate into conflict.
American education is not doing our part. Half of Europeans speak two or more languages. That is seven times the rate of foreign language fluency found in the United States. Unfortunately, if all of the students in our foreign language classes became language teachers and all of their students became language teachers, it would take several generations to scale up foreign language teaching to achieve the European or Chinese level of biliteracy. So what can we do?
Even in California where there is a maximum population diversity, there are not enough foreign language teachers to staff each school. But they promote biliteracy of their multi-lingual graduates by placing a "seal of biliteracy" on their high school diploma. According to Education Week, 13 states now offer such a reward for demonstrating language fluency and at least ten more states are working to add that recognition. All states should join them. This likewise gives recognition to our 5 million students who are English language learners and who can continue their bi-cultural biliteracy.
"Wo men ke neng!"—that is Chinese for "we can do it!"