The inauguration of our 44th president promises to bring many changes to the U.S., and there’s reason to hope that better foreign language education will be among them. The statistics on foreign language proficiency in the U.S. are downright dismal; in 2005, the National Association for Bilingual Education reported that half of the European Union’s citizens considered themselves fluent in at least two languages, and nearly 80% of EU high school and college students felt that they could hold a conversation in at least one foreign language. In some EU countries where multiple languages are in common use (for example in Luxembourg and Switzerland), upwards of 90% of citizens consider themselves conversant in at least two languages. By contrast, a mere 9% of Americans considered themselves fluent in a second language as of 2005.
As reported in the Salon.com article One nation, just not speaking English, Obama was asked to comment on high school dropout prevention as well as bilingual education. Obama first decried the misguided English only movement and went on to observe that “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English…you should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.”
Without injecting too many of my own political views in here, I have to note that this is the first time I’ve ever seen a politician take the “why can’t everyone just speak English?” issue to the next level. Obama’s underlying question of how our own, largely monolingual children will measure up in an increasingly multicultural and multilingual world, is a huge one. Obama clearly has a number of tasks on his plate right now, but once he resolves the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, establishes a national health care system, fixes Medicare and Social Security and stops global climate change, here’s hoping that better foreign language education will get its moment in the spotlight!