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This fall I’ve had the privilege of traveling in Spain, France, the Netherlands and China, visiting our international programs. Spending time with students in these settings was especially helpful to me as I consider the future of global experiential learning. It’s an odd term but one that has helped me to see beyond the boundaries of a single program or activity, and envision what it means to embrace global citizenship. Students seem to understand this better than the rest of us, as they have enough curiosity and courage to explore.
One of the areas I have been most fascinated with is language. My years of studying German and Greek are a great distance in the rearview mirror, and useful only in remembering a few words, phrases and ideas. Yet I am fascinated with the ways in which language is reshaping the way we experience the world today. As isolation continues to fade with technology, telecommunication and social networking, it’s easy to assume the need for language ability also is fading.
Thomas Friedman, in his famous book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (2005), described global interactions facilitated by technology, particularly in the arena of commerce. We often refer to the world as “getting smaller,” but the notion of it becoming flatter introduced a new way of thinking. His concept of “globalizing the local” is especially helpful. This occurs when any individual can take something of a local interest or concern and “upload” it onto the Internet to make it globally available. We have been taught the perspectives of a few can become the cause of many, overcoming the dominance of one. The Arab Spring we recently witnessed on the global stage is an important and interesting example of this phenomenon.
I take Friedman’s point in many respects, but I’m wondering if we also are seeing a related pattern as many are localizing the global through a broader knowledge of language, culture, history and tradition. Global experience influences the ways we interpret our world right where we are. Again, foreign language learning offers some helpful insights. There is a perception present among some in the United States that language ability is not really needed to be an effective global citizen. In part, this is attributed to the spread of American/Western culture, since you can get by with English in many parts of the world. The predominance of English in international business and web technologies has fueled this further. The reality is many citizens of other countries find it desirable, if not necessary, to learn English. Does that let us, in the English-speaking world, off the hook?
Since 1958, the Modern Language Association (MLA) has conducted occasional surveys to determine the number of course enrollments in languages among undergraduate programs in higher education in the United States.* The table below presents selected languages and years of this study since 1980.
The patterns are interesting to explore. The most interesting and relevant trend, however, is that foreign language enrollments, in general, have increased substantially over the past decade and more. This represents an overall increase of 74 percent in enrollments among these languages over the past 30 years. This change certainly reflects some general increase in student enrollments in higher education, but it’s not sufficient to explain the entire trend by itself. The bottom line is more students are enrolling in language programs, either by choice or expectation.
These data reinforce my very limited observations this fall. In China, the students we spoke with were each working in their third or fourth language. The students we met with in Europe were eager learners and not interested in dabbling. They want to be fluent. Some were moving to very advanced levels, some pursuing a foreign language as a novice. More importantly, I found these students to be very playful with language. They seem to relish the connections of various languages and the related nuances of language and culture. As language continues to evolve and words and phrases are adopted from one language into another, this flat world is producing more need for language competency, not less.
There are days when I would simply wish for our high school and college students to speak and write well in English. While that remains an important goal, their futures in an emerging global society will depend, in part, on their skill and sensitivity to international language and culture. The success of our nation is globally intertwined with the success of others. Our students can show us the way as they explore the world. They will have the opportunity to ask one of the more important questions in our future: Do we understand each other?
*The Modern Language Association website provides public searchable access to the studies from 1958-2009 and a detailed description of the methodology for the data collection. www.mla.org