We live in a global landscape. In order to engage responsibly with the world, it’s imperative that today’s students recognize, respect, and become familiar with cultures unlike their own. That’s why we will all gather at the Generation Study Abroad Summit to support the transformative power of overseas experiences: the opportunity to learn about new regions, peoples, and customs encourages our worldview to expand into a more global perspective. And a global perspective translates to greater opportunities for a more peaceful and collaborative world.
That world that we envision — one we know is not only possible to achieve, but vital — starts with building relationships. It starts with communication. It starts with language.
Language Immersion Develops Global Perspectives
We want to see today’s students drinking mint tea in the back alleys of Cairo with neighbors, belting out songs in Chinese on karaoke nights with new friends in Beijing, or conversing in Hindi with language partners while exploring old Delhi.
Sure, these scenarios are fun and help us make new friends across the globe. But none of this is truly possible without language. Languages are the most critical tools we have to develop relationships across cultures, which ultimately empower us to solve complex cross-border challenges — both at home and overseas.
When our students return to the U.S. from an overseas immersion experience, they are better prepared as leaders to engage with the most pressing global issues of our time. Whether they aspire to prevent the next global health epidemic or make clean energy sources accessible to all communities, language matters for the next generation of global leaders.
The State of Language
But reality tells us another story: The majority of young Americans are not learning another language or studying abroad during college.
Let’s look at the numbers:
Less than 1 percent of U.S. adults are fluent in the foreign language they took in high school.
Less than 7 percent of U.S. college students are enrolled in a language course.
Less than 10 percent of U.S. college students study abroad.
Despite that U.S. engagement with countries vastly different from our own continues to grow, the state of language learning in the U.S. has not kept pace with our involvement in global affairs:
75 percent of the global population does not speak English.
Mandarin Chinese is the world’s most spoken language, with over one billion speakers.
The top 10 most spoken languages around the world include languages like Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Japanese, and Russian.
America’s Language Deficit
Despite coming of age in the most advanced era of globalization, most Americans remain monolingual. When American students do go overseas, the data shows that they overwhelmingly choose English-speaking destinations in Western Europe.
To understand why, let’s consider the alternative. Without some background of Mandarin Chinese, would you study in a city like Beijing? Or without any familiarity of Arabic, would you embark for a semester in Marrakesh?
Some adventurous souls might take the plunge, but most students would feel underprepared and overwhelmed to consider studying outside of our English-speaking world. Yet our ability to engage with, understand, and appreciate other people and cultures will shape the United States’ future relationships with other countries, near and far.
Prioritizing Language and Culture on Campus
Our colleges and universities are on the front line of study abroad. If we want to double — and then triple! — the number of U.S. students studying abroad, let’s work together to make foreign languages a priority from the first day students step foot on campus.
From integrating world languages and area studies into majors like business, engineering, and environmental science to establishing university language centers dedicated to making languages accessible to students, starting language and cultural studies early on will prepare and empower students to study abroad in the regions of the world today so crucial to our country’s future.
The #LanguageMatters campaign is a movement to ensure the next generation of our global leaders come equipped with the critical language and cultural skills needed to achieve peace and mutual understanding in the 21st-century.
Americans who can speak a critical language like Hindi, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, and Swahili (to name a few), will directly influence how well we can engage and facilitate positive change in our evolving world — whether that change is in healthcare, the environment, human rights, education, energy, or even in shaping our perception of beauty and art.