Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
Monolingualism (the ability to speak only one language) may sound to some like a disease, and it’s certainly a condition that’s spreading throughout American higher education. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a forthcoming report by the Modern Language Association – based on information from over 2,000 institutions – found that 651 foreign language offerings had been terminated between 2013 and 2016. That’s a 5.2% drop in just three years. While we won’t have all the details until the report is released in about a month, the trend is unfortunately clear. It’s imperative that we reverse it – for the good of America’s long-term economic and national security interests and the health of democratic civil society.
In justifying their decisions to reduce or eliminate foreign language instruction, university administrators and trustees can cite the effects of the 2008 recession on tightening educational budgets, the need to allocate resources to STEM fields, and decreased demand: according to the Chronicle, enrollments are down 9.2% during that 2013-2016 period, with only Biblical Hebrew, American Sign Language, and especially Korean on an uptick. A 2014 report from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences showed that the recession hit foreign-language degree programs harder than the rest of the humanities. In the immediate years following, colleges cut 12% of foreign-language degree programs, double that of all degree programs.
Yet none of these factors are in themselves sufficient cause for this dire situation now. Having worked in American higher education for many years, including as the chair of a foreign language department, I’ve seen large-scale capital campaigns succeed for new buildings (practically anything with a physical location now has a donor’s name on it at some institutions), and funds for centers and laboratories suddenly materialize to retain or lure star faculty. It’s a question of priorities – and foreign language instruction has tended to be low on the list of them. It’s also a question of advocates for foreign language teaching making the clear and compelling case for its relevance.
Let’s take the example of French, which took the biggest hit according to the MLA study, accounting for 129 of the 651 closed programs (versus 118 for Spanish and 56 for Italian). Some Americans may persist in seeing French as useful mainly for ordering wine and navigating a semester abroad in Paris, but French is a global powerhouse. It’s not only among the most commonly studied and spoken languages in the United States overall (along with Spanish and American Sign Language), but the sixth most spoken language in world. It’s the official language of 29 countries, with roughly 300 million speakers, who could rise to 700 million by 2050, according to some demographers.
That’s because although French is an official or working language around the world – from French Guiana in South America to Vanuatu in Oceania to Quebec in North America. Half of the world’s French speakers live in Africa. Already the second most populous area on earth, with 41% of its population under age 15, Africa will drive future development – the Chinese are investing billions there for a reason. Sure, English is king in many African countries, fruit of the reach of the former British empire, but the continent also contains dozens of French-speaking countries, including some projected to lead the next economic boom, like Senegal and the Ivory Coast.
Is it really time to drop French instruction in American colleges and universities? I think not.
For those less inclined to think globally, here’s another reason to reverse the trend: fewer Americans learning foreign languages means more Americans deprived of the openness of mind and understanding of other cultures. That’s good news for some supporters of President Donald Trump, who has incited xenophobia and racism ever since the 2016 Presidential election, including with an ongoing misinformation campaign that attempts to link foreigners, especially immigrants, to terrorism and crime.
We’ve now had three years of this poisonous climate in which speaking a language other than English in public can be a risky affair, a sign that you are not a “real” American or don’t “belong” here. The stories are many: A mathematician who spoke with an accent escorted off an airplane, suspected of terrorism, for scribbling equations that looked to his seatmate like Arabic; people detained by border agents at gas stations in Montana, expelled from businesses in Florida, and verbally abused in Manhattan delicatessens, all because they spoke Spanish; graduate students told not to speak Chinese in public so people wouldn’t think they didn’t want to “assimilate.”
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In our age of calls for border walls and “fortress Europe,” many forces work towards the return of an isolationism and politics of hatred that thrive on mutual incomprehension. Let’s not be guided by budget rationales that may save institutions money in the short term but will prove costly in myriad ways to our nation for generations to come.