The United States has a treasured history of welcoming in people from countless foreign countries and nourishing ethnic enclaves where new immigrants and their children sustain many elements of their home-country culture, including the language. Yet the U.S. also has a time-honored tradition of providing economic and social opportunities outside the boundaries of the ethnic neighborhood and penetrating that enclave with English-language mass media. These forces, working in combination, acculturate young people to the English-language mainstream, with the result that in only a generation or two, the old-country tongue typically becomes a second language or a tattered collection of words and stock phrases.
Some of the most firmly rooted ethnic enclaves in the United States are not of immigrant stock but rather communities that were absorbed as part of historic American expansion. The oldest of these are the speakers of Native American languages, who may be found in all the states. Later, the United States absorbed French-speakers with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and Spanish-speakers with the expansion into territory formerly belonging to Mexico. This patchwork background partly explains why there has never been an official national language in the United States as there is in some other countries.
Nevertheless, English is the de facto language of the United States, and Americans are notorious for a lack of knowledge of languages other than English. Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans report being able to speak a foreign language, while 53 percent of Europeans have this ability. Probably only half of those Americans claiming knowledge of a foreign language can speak it well. Considering that America is a world power, with business dealings, diplomatic initiatives, and military footprints in numerous countries where English is the foreign language, our tradition of being tongue-tied has negative consequences for our balance of trade and for our national security.
At a Senate hearing in 2012, witnesses noted that only 74 percent of language-designated positions at the State Department were filled with fully qualified personnel. The department was particularly in need of speakers of Near East, South Asian, and East Asian languages. The Defense Department was in a similar bind, with more than 80 percent of its language positions filled but only 28 percent with speakers at the necessary level of proficiency.
The root of the problem is the failure of our schools to teach languages. In 2008, only 25 percent of elementary schools and 58 percent of middle schools offered foreign language instruction. These figures represent declines from 1997, when the numbers were 31 percent (elementary) and 75 percent (middle school). More than one-quarter of those teaching foreign language in elementary schools were not appropriately certified. Moreover, only a small percentage of the elementary and middle schools not teaching languages in 2008 had plans to start doing so within the next two years. The situation was better in high schools, with 91 percent offering the subject, unchanged from 1997, and the overwhelming majority of the teachers having certification. The overall number of K–12 students enrolled in foreign language courses had increased from 18 percent in 2005 to 18.5 percent in 2008. However, the foreign language curriculum tends to be plagued by a lack of continuity from one grade to the next. One advantage of the large immigrant population—and the native-born generation that they raise—is that it can serve as a reservoir of people who speak a foreign language.