America’s Foreign Language Problem

It is not surprising that Americans’ interest in and knowledge of foreign languages has been steadily diminishing.

Compare the US presidents in the 18th and 19th centuries to those since the mid to late 1900s: Despite limited technology, the early US presidents were surprisingly erudite when it came to foreign languages.

To name a few: John Adams knew Latin and French. Thomas Jefferson was fluent in French and also knew Spanish, Welsh and Arabic. James Madison was versed in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In contrast, all presidents since FDR barely spoke/speak any language other than English.

Why this trend prevails has long been a topic for debate: Could it be the geographic and at times political isolation of the United States? Perhaps the post-Second-World-War economic ascent and independence of the country, coupled with English becoming the world’s lingua franca? Or have recent decades’ patterns in education investment shaped those developments?

Amelia Friedman ran a piece in the Atlantic that examines this trend from the perspective of the last few years, and a number of interesting statistics and facts are mentioned:


1. The number of language enrollments in higher education in the U.S. declined by more than 111,000 spots between 2009 and 2013—the first drop since 1995.

2. Only 7 percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.

3. The vast majority—95 percent—of all language enrollments were in a European language. Very few are learning Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi or Bengali, which are among the world’s most widely spoken languages.

4. Educators and lawmakers disagree about the return on investment of language learning, i.e. whether it’s something that produces a greater return than other studies.

5. Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom.

6. Most people overlook the proven cognitive and career benefits of language learning, and “don’t think language education is possible”.

7. Qualified language teachers are scarce: The average proficiency of language teachers is below that needed by the military.


If this lack of advancement of multilingualism among US students persists, to what extent will it create a disadvantage for Americans in the global marketplace?

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