Bilingualism needed for Americans

In today’s globalized world, Americans are at a competitive disadvantage due to our monolingualism. As businesses and the economy become more international, it is increasingly important that a person speaks more than one language.

With the large amount of diverse ethnicities represented in the U.S., it is shocking that, according to linguist François Grosjean’s Bilingual: Life and Reality, only 17 percent of Americans are bilingual. If we as a nation want to keep up with the globalized market, then it is imperative that we move away from our lazy monolingualism.

Studies done by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages have shown that there is a correlation between elevated performance in school and the workplace and bilingualism. People who speak more than one language score higher on standardized tests and are better critical thinkers.

The benefits of learning a second language are immeasurable not only personally, but also professionally. As the U.S. continues to diversify, the demand for bilingual professionals has increased. In addition to personal gain, the U.S. as a whole would greatly benefit from becoming a bilingual country.

While Spanish is growing in popularity, the fact remains that only 17 percent of the population speaks a language other than English. Bilingualism promotes trade by opening international markets to people who would otherwise be excluded due to language barriers. Language learning can promote cultural understanding, which will inevitably lead to increased political dialogue and understanding.

In his study on language and political reality, the world-renowned linguist Noam Chomsky concluded that language plays a critical role in the construction of beliefs about the significance of events and the creation of meaning concerning policy and crises.

Through limited language arts programs in schools and English-only rules at many jobs, Americans have adopted a very ethnocentric attitude toward foreign languages. We have come to believe that English is the only acceptable language to be spoken in classrooms and workplaces.

What we have failed to remember is that a substantial amount of Americans are immigrants with a native tongue that isn’t English. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that within three decades, no single ethnic group will be the majority. As we grow more diverse, we are becoming a nation of plurality in race, but not in language.

The failure to successfully learn languages can be attributed to the foreign language programs in our education system. Students typically don’t start learning a new language until middle or high school — when they have already passed the prime language-learning age.

Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington is part of a team studying the way children learn languages. She says that between the ages of 1 and 7 is when a child’s brain is most susceptible to language learning. This means that children should be exposed to foreign languages in elementary school instead of middle school.

If we want to keep up with today’s globalized markets, then it is time for Americans to incorporate foreign languages into our education system at an early age and into our workplaces. As the rest of the world surpasses us in bilingualism, we are finding ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.

According to Grosjean’s studies, 56 percent of Europeans, 38 percent of people from Great Britain and 35 percent of Canadians speak more than one language. At only 17 percent, America pales in comparison. Considering both Canada and Great Britain have English as their official language, our ethnocentrism is obviously not due to the language itself, but a problem in our approach to multilingualism.

It would be in our best cultural, personal and political interests to move away from being a monolingual society.


Natalie Pimblett is a junior political science major. 

This article was posted in the section Opinion.

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