Chances are at some point you have been asked, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” My answer is to speak every language in the world — all 7,102 of them. Imagine being able to communicate with anyone, work anywhere in the world, read great literature in the original language.
Superpower unavailing, I am still working on language No. 2 of 7,102. My journey to become proficient in Spanish became serious when I decided to minor in Spanish in college. I continue to delight in opportunities to practice and improve and am so appreciative of native speakers who welcome me with grace into these conversations.
A second language expands horizons and fosters connection with people whom we would not otherwise meet. Making an effort to speak someone else’s language, however imperfectly, shows a genuine interest in learning more about who they are.
The benefits of speaking a second language are numerous, such as the correlation of foreign language education with increased academic achievement in children. Some studies have found that bilingualism may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. There are expanded career opportunities. Foreign language study helps spur greater awareness of other cultures.
Traveling takes on an added dimension. Some of my favorite travel memories involve spontaneous discussions with locals on topics ranging from current events to restaurant and sightseeing recommendations. Language also helps in a pinch abroad, like when I had to discuss cold medicine with the pharmacist. Of course, with the ample language diversity in the U.S., conversational opportunities abound closer to home as well.
Despite such benefits, most Americans are not proficient in a second language. The Pew Center notes that while 92% of European students learn a foreign language in school, just 20% of K-12 students in the United States do so. The 2017 National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report indicates that in Oklahoma, 12.16% of students are enrolled in a foreign language.
Experts who study this national language gap point to several causes, including lack of mandated foreign-language curricula, a shortage of qualified foreign-language teachers and a perception by many that learning a foreign language is too difficult. Also, there exists the notion that because English is widely spoken in international business, foreign-language attainment is not particularly critical. However, this perception of English-language universalism is not borne out by the fact that 75% of people outside of the United States do not speak English.
The language gap also has notable consequences for American national interests. For example, in 2016, the U.S. General Accounting Office found that 23% of overseas diplomatic positions were filled by personnel who did not meet the minimum language proficiency requirements.
Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta observed last year in an editorial, “In times of great national security challenges, such as those we face today, as well as in times of great opportunity, such as the opening of new international markets, we find ourselves scrambling for people who can speak, write and think in languages other than English.”
There are also compelling foreign-language proficiency needs in the United States. For example, qualified language interpreters are needed to help ensure effective communication in critical settings, such as hospitals and the court system. Also, under federal law, entities that receive federal financial assistance are required to provide meaningful access to persons who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write or understand English.
Linguistic diversity has been woven into the fabric of American life since its inception, to the enrichment of all of us. Efforts to include all people, regardless of language spoken, should be a priority. Effective communication avoids misunderstandings and missed opportunities.
It is a ripe time to address the foreign language gap. The advent of free and reasonably-priced technologies brings the goal of language-learning within reach to those who lack the time or financial resources to take traditional language classes.
We can treat other languages either as barriers…or bridges.
Planning the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre history center
Adrienne Watt Nesser is a Tulsa attorney and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board. Opinion pieces by board members appear in this space most weeks.