International trade, travel, communication, and migration are increasing Americans' contact with foreign languages and cultures. Although the power of the United States (following the historical power of Britain) has made English a world language, that same power also brings Americans into contact with foreigners more frequently than ever before. We send tourists, business representatives, diplomats, and soldiers to every corner of the globe, and hordes of people from other nations come to America to live or to do business. We also have large communities of American-born people who have historically spoken languages other than English. As a result, mastery of foreign language and understanding of foreign culture are the foundations of several occupations and businesses.
The research group IBISWorld reported that the U.S. language instruction industry generated $2 billion in revenue in 2019, and had experienced 1.9 percent annual growth from 2015 through 2019. The language instruction industry includes companies that provide foreign language instruction, English language instruction, and sign language instruction.
The most effective way to learn a language other than English is to hear it spoken in the home during childhood, and large numbers of Americans learn this way. However, four-fifths of us do not have this experience, and among those who do, many learn the language at a level that enables them to navigate the kitchen but not to speak well enough to work in, say, international business.
Most Americans who learn another language do so in classes. Most middle schools and the vast majority of secondary schools offer these classes, and so do about one-quarter of elementary schools. In the 2014–2015 academic year (the most recent data currently available), 10.6 million K–12 students, or about 19.7 percent, were enrolled in a foreign language course. Spanish is the most commonly taught language by far. Other languages gain or lose popularity ...