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Monolingual Myopia

Thank you in sixteen languages.

The Modern Language Association reported some weeks ago about a general decline in enrollment in foreign language courses, reversing a trend of steady increases in previous years. Business, technology, and new course offerings may be pulling students’ focus away from languages. At the same time, there has been a recent increase in the number of studies that explore the benefits of being bilingual or just being exposed to the process of learning a second language and about its culture. Research shows that bilingualism brings cognitive benefits, cultural competence, and the possibility of better jobs in a globalized economy. Clayton Lewis, author of “Monolingual Myopia,” is right when he says, “The reality of the 21st century job market is that Americans will be competing for a job where, with other competencies being equal, they will be compared to a multilingual candidate.”

The American education system, for the most part, keeps living in denial about these realities. Budget cuts in schools disproportionally affect music, arts, and international language classes. Higher education puts the international language requirements under fire regularly, thereby eliminating, shrinking, and dismissing the crucial value that knowledge of multiple languages and cultures adds to our students’ education. We need to rethink our approach to the study of international languages. Instead of looking at it as an obstacle for the completion of a degree, it is more accurate to consider it a long term investment.

My colleague, Stephen Buttes [assistant professor of Spanish, IPFW], puts it in the right perspective when he argues that nobody questions the value of mathematics as a key requirement for other sciences. Progressing in math knowledge opens the door to physics, chemistry, and many other areas that require numerical competence, including social sciences and some areas of the humanities. Learning a second language requires a similar process. According to Lewis, “Language skills must be built over time; real fluency comes easily for very few and must be constantly cultivated if it is to be maintained.” Similarly, a second language opens the doors to research in many disciplines out of reach for monolingual individuals; it opens the door to communication with researches from other parts of the world. Even if English remains a lingua franca internationally, multicultural awareness and global competency will take any scientist, social researcher, or humanist further than living in an English cocoon.

Gandhi said on the topic of overspecialized education that "the expert knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” We need experts ready to work globally on global challenges. Where different languages may become an obstacle for cooperation in problem solving, the knowledge of a second language is crucial. I wonder how long it will take the American educational system catch up with the rest of the world.

Ana Benito is chair of the Department of International Language and Culture Studies at IPFW.