Does being an American mean only knowing one language?

“Prišla som, videla som, nechápem, odchádzam.” (I came, I saw, I don’t understand, I’m leaving . . .)

Recently, I found out that the university is considering adding a foreign language requirement for all UW-W students seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree: regardless of high school experience, at least two years of foreign language courses at the university. Though there are many institutional-internal reasons behind this movement, on a broader  dimension of what it takes to be a good global citizen,  there is the perception that American university students lack for foreign language skills.

As the world’s only superpower, the United States has its hands in every economy and culture around the globe.  In Europe, though only the United Kingdom and Ireland are English speaking countries, close to 50% of all business deals are brokered in English (Bryson 182).

When my brother, who lives in Dallas and works for the All-American  corporation  JCPenny, nevertheless must go to China, or India or Germany, to work on marketing products, his interpreters are native Chinese, Indian, and German.  The lynchpin of international communication, the person who makes the connection between nations, is more than likely to not be a native speaker of English, not an American.  And if language begets understanding, what does it say when so many foreigners know our language while we remain ignorant of theirs?

Rivaling America’s superpower status is the low regard so many other countries have for our nation.  A November 2006 opinion poll conducted by the British newspaper The Guardian found that President Bush was regarded as nearly the most dangerous person in the world, more dangerous than everyone except Bin-Laden, this coming from our closest ally in the world (Glover).

So that leaves me wondering if you, the professional class in training,  think there is a fundamental responsibility for US professionals trained in the humanities and arts-the communicators, the cultural vanguard–to have some foreign language skills.  Here we are in the middle of a presidential campaign where candidates from both parties are expounding on American values and goals, yet I haven’t heard anyone talking about the importance of being a good neighbor in the community of nations.  Is not the essential, core ingredient in moving down that road to be able to talk to at least one of our “neighbors” in their own language?  I just finished spending a year in Slovakia, in central Europe. Of all the people I met that had native-like fluency in both English and Slovak, none were native born Americans . . . . including all the embassy personnel I met . . . . . including the US Ambassador. Can any of these people fully appreciate the limitations (and appearance of arrogance) of  having to conduct all international business in (on?) our terms?

As it stands, the BS at UW-W requires additional math and lab sciences, the BA has a foreign language requirement that can be entirely discharged by retro credits from high school work on the college prep track.  There is also an acknowledged (extreme) deficiency in international experience among our students (last time I checked, UW-Eau Claire had something like 17% of its students having some international education; whereas our percentage was less than 1%).  More foreign language classes would in all probably increase interest in study abroad programs.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way. New York:  Avon. 1990.

Glover, Julian. “British Believe Bush is more dangerous than Kim Jong-il.” The Guardian Limited. 3 Nov 2006. <,,1938434,00.html,,1938434,00.html>