The United States has a great strength: people in our country understand the languages of nearly every nation in the world. Large scale immigration—almost 30 million people during the past three decades—has brought us that advantage.
The ability to speak other languages is sorely needed for our national security and economic success. Yet, speaking another language is viewed unfavorably by many Americans who fear a weakening of our national character. Consequently, this unique strength is daily losing its vitality.
In a person’s life or in a country’s existence, making a big mistake once is understandable; but to repeat it is foolish. Today, we are duplicating a serious error of the past by not appreciating this gift of languages and using it to help the country.
In the last century, immigrants believed that they should not teach their children the language of the country of their origin because somehow that would keep them from becoming real Americans. As a consequence, most Americans today speak only one language even though their parents or grandparents were immigrants from countries with dominant languages other than English.
Today, we are repeating last century’s mistake in millions of homes as parents and their children feel social pressure not to maintain the language of their country of origin. A University of California study summarized the views of Asian-American immigrants and their children as follows:
“Despite decades of research findings to the contrary, there is still a common belief that bilingualism is bad for children and unpatriotic, and that the only way to be a true American is to leave behind any other language and allegiance that might be in your background. Children—both long-term Americans and immigrants—often buy into this belief system.”
Let’s be clear. Every child in the U.S. must learn English, and every adult who is not proficient in English ought to be encouraged to learn it. English is a bedrock of our society, and also a world language.
That said, there are enormous advantages to a society in which many individuals also know other languages. First, we enrich our knowledge of other countries, including their histories and cultures. As a result, our leaders should be better informed about the rest of the world, and hopefully make wiser decisions, especially those about war and peace.
Second, our economy would be more productive, meaning more jobs in the U.S. At a workshop convened in the Washington, D.C. area to discuss language needs, business owners expressed the necessity of hiring people who spoke Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, Dari, Chinese, and many other languages. These business people also described the economic costs of a lack of language capability, such as time lost in productivity and loss of clients.
Third, American national security would also be stronger if more people understood the world’s languages. A few years ago, more than 70 government agencies reported a need for individuals with foreign language expertise. At that time, the General Accounting Office suggested that such shortages “have adversely affected agency operations and hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counter terrorism, and diplomatic efforts.”
If immigrants and their children could only be encouraged to maintain the languages of their countries of origin, it would be so much simpler to meet these social, economic, and national security needs. If someone has no knowledge of a particular language, it is that much more difficult to train that person compared to someone who at least knows the basics. A strong personal incentive to maintain these “heritage languages” is that immigrants who were bi-literate earned about 10% more than people literate only in English.
We should not fear our fellow citizens knowing the languages of the world. Young immigrants and children of immigrants will become Americans even if they speak the language of their fathers and mothers. The attractions of American society are so strong that children and youngsters want to learn English so that they will be like other young people.
If more Americans were to retain the language of their families’ origins, America would be stronger, not weaker. It should not be shameful to know the language of your parents; it should be a matter of pride.