Making Foreign Language Mandatory: Deconstructing Americentrism, Monolingualism, and the Myth of Exceptionalism

By Doctor Comrade

Education is a tough subject for anyone suspicious of power structures. American politics seem to take education, as a value, for granted, assuming that education improves the content of the citizenry. Underlying the notion of “improvement” is an ideal form of education that transforms, fixes, or in some other way changes the character of young people into a desirable outcome. Both the Democrats and Republicans push education as a platform issue, ideologically laden, of course, but neither stop to question the assumption that education is inherently a worthwhile endeavor. Democrats tend to imagine education as a gateway to equality, either through attainment of job skills for a modern economy or college education to form the next wave of the middle class. Republicans tend to see education as a system to instill values like patriotism and tradition. Naturally, the ideological divide on education has been fraught with issues since education became a national initiative in the late-nineteenth century, and recent years have seen contests over school prayer, Common Core, evolution and intelligent design, music and arts funding, the push for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math improvement (STEM), and Advanced Placement US History curricula (APUSH). What has received less attention during this span has been multilingual education, something that American students desperately need in a world of globalization.

This begs the question about why multilingual education isn’t already prevalent in the United States. According to Forbes, only 15% of elementary students, 58% of middle school students, and 91% of high school students have access to foreign language instruction. In 2010, only 50% of colleges required a course in another language for a baccalaureate. These statistics demonstrate that, especially at lower levels, multilingual education isn’t a national priority, even though fluency in second and third languages would be easier if students had more exposure to them more often. Even more troubling, most states have minimal requirements for world languages, and by my count, as many as 24 have no requirement at all.

This observation should be hardly surprising. Monolingualism is actually a positive cultural attribute in the United States, which prizes its exceptionalism and world leadership. When President Obama embraced the idea that Americans should learn a foreign language, he was attacked by Republicans. America’s Favorite Mayor Rudy Giuliani accused Obama of harboring anti-American feelings and pandering to Europeans. To him, learning Spanish is akin to devaluing English, which is nonsensical because the people who would be learning Spanish already speak English. He stated, “The reality is that this is a country that should speak English.” And here we find the classic Americentrism that has come to represent American language education: because English has become intrinsically linked to the Anglo-Saxon identity of this country, any challenge to the language’s hegemony becomes an affront to American identity. Moreover, insinuating that Americans should learn the languages of other peoples seems to imply that Americans are intellectually impoverished. Rather, the rest of the world should conform to America’s leadership and learn English. Russell Berman, head of the Modern Language Association, characterized this position as “just the contemporary form of a xenophobia that suggests we don't need languages – and it's deeply, deeply misguided.”

America’s global leadership aside, almost every other industrialized country requires its students to be proficient in at least two languages, and countries like Sweden are considering programs of mandatory quadrilingualism.

Just calling this education “foreign language” or “world language” is indicative of the Americentric educational prerogative. First of all, that language, whatever it may be, is not foreign to the millions of immigrants who live in this country and have chosen to join the American population. More importantly, those languages are certainly not foreign to the billions of people who don’t speak English and who Americans can’t independently communicate with. Calling them “foreign languages” reinforces the notion that English is domestic and intrinsically American whereas everything else is un-American.

Let’s consider if Americans learned any combination of two of these languages: Mandarin (most common language in the world), Hindi, Spanish (official language of 21 countries and spoken in 44, as well as fastest growing language group in the US), Arabic (official language of 26 countries), and French (official language of 40 countries). Monolingual English speakers can communicate with only 508 million people, about 7% of the Earth’s population. Even learning only French and Arabic, that number almost doubles to 916 million.[1] If American schools taught Mandarin and Spanish, that number would increase to almost 2 billion, and Americans would be able to easily communicate with the world’s most populous nation, the 105 countries where English is regularly spoken, and the 44 countries where Spanish is regularly spoken (with some overlap, of course). The benefits of multilingual education seem self-evident, yet its assimilation into American curricula has never been implemented.

Teaching American students multiple languages will fundamentally undermine Americentric education in three ways: global focus, exposure to cultures, and reimagining the privilege of English. In terms of global focus, world language education shifts education’s prerogatives from the solipsistic American enterprise to positioning Americans, both historically and culturally, within the larger scope of world population. Primarily focusing on American culture, from history to language instruction, reifies American exceptionalism. By introducing students at a young age to global imperatives, Americans will grow up knowing that the linguistic expressions of other nations are significant to how each experiences the world. Focusing globally will humanize the speakers of foreign languages to Americans, who will be encouraged to imagine a broader world community, united by a common language.

Language education also exposes students to other cultures as immersion techniques help students grasp new languages. Music, film, literature, and art can all be used to instruct American students in new languages, exposing them to the artistic productions that represent billions of people. These exposures do not happen in English classes and only rarely in music or art classes. Language education provides an easily accessible window for students to realize the existences of non-Anglophone cultures. And rather than seeing something in a book or experiencing it in a cursory way, students will be encouraged to interact with the materials through a shared language. Moreover, those exposures will heighten students’ awareness of the humanity of other cultures, reducing the divide between “us” and “them.”

Lastly, language education will help undermine the privileges of English and its culturally constructed linkages to American identity. This point has two implications. First, this country must abandon its xenophobic notions that America is an English-only country; America was long heralded as the “cultural melting pot,” yet this has come to mean only that immigrants must have their culture boiled out of them. The reality is the existence of millions of small communities, linguistically and culturally diverse, across the country, that all share the same rights and obligations. This culturally diverse conglomeration is America, not the imposition of a narrowly defined WASP identity. Secondly, the privilege of English has facilitated a discourse of inferiority wherein those who do not choose to learn English are denigrated as racially, ethnically, culturally, or intellectually inferior. Moreover, they are marked as outsiders, permanent Others, the internal enemy. The country must reevaluate its relationship to English and its diverse communities by reimagining education as a multilingual activity, facilitating a deconstruction of the Otherness that pervades political discourse.

Though we should remain skeptical of education, it can be reappropriated as a tool of liberation. Americans can liberate themselves from the discourses of inferiority and anti-intellectualism that cling to English-only education. Americans can liberate themselves from monolingualism in a diverse and globalized world. And Americans can liberate themselves from the burdens of xenophobia by deconstructing discourses of Otherness about foreigners, immigrants, and those who have embraced separate identities. In this way, American exceptionalism can be culturally challenged through linguistic resistance as Americans recognize their part of the global community.

[1] Yes, I understand this number may be slightly inflated because it may count people who speak both Arabic and French, but I think the overlap doesn’t invalidate the argument. More importantly, there is probably very little overlap between Mandarin and Spanish, which is the heart of my point.