Worse than having a problem is not knowing it. Even worse: being proud of it. A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (Evan Glodstein: What if English Only Isn’t Wrong? Do Americans Need To Be Bilingual, and Will Technology Smash the Language Barrier For Good? – WSJ.com) toys with the idea that English dominance, the efforts by others to learn English plus the availability of translation technology makes it just fine for Americans to remain mono-lingual.
To learn a new language is to open a window into a new culture, to acquire a new prism through which interpret the world around us. When the Chinese learn English (there may be more English speakers in China already than in the U.S.) they are also learning English culture, they are reading American media, becoming more familiar with American life-style, understanding the preferences of their largest customer. When Chinese executives negotiate a deal in English with an American counterpart, they are likely to understand the other party much better than the other way around. If it were a poker game, it is clear where I would place my bet!
It has always intrigued me how the very same political leaders who defend “English Only” policies are also the most concerned that China is eating America’s lunch. America’s education policies often seem more focused on “curing” immigrant children from their “bilingual problem” than on exposing all children to at least one foreign language at an early age. My 8th and 6th graders attending public schools in Arizona are yet to take a single foreign language class. If it weren’t for our efforts to preserve their Spanish (sorry authorities, we are hoping they will remain “contaminated”) and expose them to other languages in our family travels they would reach high-school without having ever had to learn a word of anything other than English.
Thunderbird has been educating global business leaders for the last 64 years and learning a second language has been a critical foundation of our educational approach. We are fully aware that most international business transactions will be conducted in English, but we are more concerned that without an understanding of the cultural framework shaping the thinking of the person across the table, a mono-cultural executive would be doomed to making a bad deal. “English-only” is in fact a terrible deal for America.