from NYT, Feb 7, 10
part of: "Will Americans Really Learn Chinese?"
Is the new interest in learning Chinese another language fad? We certainly hope not. But the U.S. record with foreign language instruction is underwhelming.
The immigrant languages of yesteryear like German, Italian and Japanese were obliterated.
When it comes to languages, as a nation we are of two minds: while urging middle class kids to pursue study abroad with the understanding that it will better prepare them linguistically and culturally for the new global marketplace, concurrently we undermine the maintenance of the great linguistic diversity of our newest Americans — the millions of immigrant children that enrich our national linguistic reservoir.
This has deep roots in American history. Benjamin Franklin’s excessive anxieties about German (and Germans) in Pennsylvania and Teddy Roosevelt’s chilling “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language” have echoed through the ages.
For over a century the United States has maintained an implacable regime of compulsive monolingualism — as famously quipped by a sociologist, the “U.S. is a cemetery for languages.” The great immigrant languages of yesteryear such as German, Italian and Japanese now R.I.P. in American soil.
Developing English skills, of course, is as always, essential for doing well in the educational system, in the workplace, and above all, for full democratic engagement in society. But more than ever before, in an increasingly interconnected world, the ability to negotiate in more than one language represents an extraordinary cognitive and meta-cognitive advantage for communicating in diverse neighborhoods, for working in various sectors of the economy, and for success in global businesses.
The archeology of the English-only logic that has reigned in the U.S. for generations emerged in the context of nation-building and the need for social cohesion, as millions of immigrants speaking multiple languages were turned into loyal citizens, workers and consumers in the new nation. As the center of global power slowly but surely moves East and South with the “BRIC” countries (Brazil, India and China), the advantages (economic, diplomatic and for security) of a multilingual citizenry are becoming increasingly obvious, as Doris Sommer of Harvard and others have shown.
If Teddy Roosevelt turns out to be right, our kids will be left in the dust in the new global race to the top. And when the top science- and math-scoring multilingual kids from Finland, Korea and Netherlands get there they will hear the sweet sound of success in many languages.