The growing influence of technology and global communication means that, in most parts of the world, knowing more than one language is a survival skill. Three out of five of people worldwide are fluent in at least one language besides their mother tongue, a necessity in a world that depends on constant connection and dialogue.
One country that falls severely behind in multilingualism, despite a rich and thriving immigrant population, is the United States. Only an estimated 20 percent percent are fluent in a language besides their own.
This weak statistic stems in large part from the fact that the American education system doesn't mandate foreign language education. And even though most high schools offer some form of a foreign language studies program, students often do not take advantage of these because there's no requirement that they do. For students who do not speak a second language at home, the decision to forego a foreign language class means that they enter the workforce with almost no exposure to other languages.
So how big of a deal is this? Many Americans grow up taking advantage of the fact that English has the largest total number of speakers worldwide. They rationalize the decision not to learn another language by arguing that English is a global language, used in business and education by many in other countries. And, to an extent, they're completely right.
But after you take into account the 1.5 billion people worldwide who do speak English, you're left with 6 billion whom most Americans will simply never be able to communicate with. Languages like Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, and Spanish are becoming more and more relevant in today's business-driven world, and it's entirely feasible that they will achieve the same widespread usage as English very, very soon. A population out of which 80% speak no language other than English is by no means a productive one and could spell bad news for our success in international business and relations as the years progress.
The only way to combat this accelerating downward spiral is to follow the lead of most European countries and start mandating foreign language education as early as possible. Studies have proven that children under the age of 10 learn foreign languages more quickly than any other age group, with a significant decline occurring the older that they get. This means that by the time most high-school level courses are offered, students are past their peak language-learning age and may struggle more to achieve fluency. Enforcing the acquisition of another language in elementary schools or even kindergartens will mean that in just a few years we will have a generation of workers and travelers who are more well-equipped to represent America's interests across the globe.
For now, knowing a second or third language gives Americans a competitive edge when it comes to finding a job. But as time goes on, multilingualism becomes less of an option and more of a requirement. The fact remains that one in five American jobs are tied to international trade, and there is no reason that number won't grow as technology advances and global interconnection skyrockets. Students deserve an education that will prepare them for every aspect of the real world, and mandated foreign language education is one way to ensure efficiency and continued success for future generations of Americans.