As the U.S. Republican presidential primary has staggered on over the past few weeks, one candidate was forced to sing "America the Beautiful" to shore up his patriotic bona fides after having been accused of speaking French. But there is good news for those who believe that talking in the language of l'amour is the first step to a socialized medical system that will force priests to distribute condoms with communion wafers: Fewer and fewer schools are actually teaching French.
In fact, a decreasing number of primary and secondary schools are teaching any foreign language at all. That's one sign of a continued disengagement between Americans and a planet they have such a big impact on -- and could gain so much from engaging more closely with. Perhaps it helps to shore up Fortress America by ensuring fewer and fewer people inside the walls know anything about what is beyond them. But it does seem like a lost opportunity.
There are some helpful signs when it comes to Americans' interactions with the rest of the world. Some 260,000 U.S. students studied abroad in the 2008-2009 academic year, up from around 75,000 20 years ago. More than 1 million Americans reported volunteering abroad in 2008. And of course, a lot of people come to the United States to visit or stay. Just shy of 60 million tourists came to the United States in 2010, according to the World Bank. Add to that the 723,000 foreign students studying in the country and all those who come to the United States to work. A little over 6.3 percent of the U.S. population is non-citizen, and another 5 percent are naturalized, according to the Census Bureau. But the other 89 percent really need to get out more. Most Americans are still incredibly insular, and that costs the country dear.
What do Americans know about the rest of world? A 2006 survey prepared for the National Geographic Society of 18-to-24-year-olds found that fewer than four in 10 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, and only one in 10 could find Afghanistan on a map of Asia. Better news was that nearly seven out of ten could find China on the Asia map, which is more than could find Louisiana, Mississippi, or New York state on a map of the United States. Still, the gaps are considerable -- and they also show up when it comes to language. Four in 10 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States claim to speak a foreign language fluently, but only 14 percent of Americans as a whole know conversational Spanish. Any other language is way behind that.
Unfortunately, chances are that those numbers will go down rather than up in the future. The percentage of U.S. elementary and middle schools offering foreign-language instruction fell between 1997 and 2008 -- from 75 percent to 58 percent in the case of middle schools, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. On top of that, the number of languages offered also declined. For example, French used to be offered at nearly half of U.S. middle schools in 1997, but was offered at less than a quarter 11 years later. Chinese, as you might imagine, saw big gains (well, relatively): A little more than 2 percent of middle schools offer the language, up from below 1 percent in 1997.
Don't worry, though. Not many Americans will get lost on their way overseas or be confused when they get there, because they aren't going overseas in the first place. In 2008, the United States actually saw fewer of its citizens travel abroad as tourists than Britain or Germany, despite having a considerably larger population. Only one in five 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States even has a passport.