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History has taught us the value of foreign languages. Have we learned our lesson? Posted by on Nov 19, 2018 in Archived Posts

From the Cold War era to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, we need not look back too far to realize the scale of America’s language gap—and why we must fill it before history repeats itself.

There is a reason we offer more than 100 languages in our learning platforms: we believe all languages matter. That’s not a self-serving belief, it’s one founded in both past and present events.

History repeatedly reminds us of the complex and critical role of languages, from the post-9/11 need for Arabic skills to the inability in 2014 to distribute Ebola prevention materials to local communities in languages they understand.

And today, we are committed to all languages in service of our partner organizations, who regularly add and share their own content in new and surprising languages. They deem these languages critical for their work in disaster relief, intelligence, security, diplomacy, business, and beyond and we believe them. These languages spring up for myriad reasons: international political shifts, military partnerships, natural disasters, and even language preservation efforts.

Regardless of the reason, we believe in being prepared for as many situations in as many languages as possible.

We can’t wait to realize we need a language until we already need it desperately.

It is impossible to predict where the next opportunity or obstacle will arise. In a time of political, environmental, or other crisis, there is no time to provide meaningful language training to first responders, diplomats, intelligence analysts, and other critical players.

Look no further than recent US history for proof of the desperate need for language preparedness.

Speaking Russian after the Cold War

In 2004, a part of a call for more and better Arabic language training, the New York Times reflected on the curious case of Russian language learning during and after the Cold War:

“Less than a year after the Soviet Union launched a satellite named Sputnik in October 1957, America answered with a counterstrike. It was a piece of legislation, the National Defense Education Act, which aimed at harnessing brain power rather than weaponry for the cold war […] a portion provided incentives for universities to develop skilled speakers of strategic languages, especially Russian.”

That legislation led to more than 30,000 American students learning Russian—many of whom would become the translators, analysts, diplomats, and policymakers who brought the Cold War to a peaceful resolution many decades later.

As one might expect, military linguists were among those learning Russian during the Cold War. To listen in and analyze gathered intelligence, linguists were highly trained to listen and read in Russian at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). But there was one major problem, revealed in a New York Times article (this time from 1990): these linguists had learned to spy in Russian, but not necessarily to speak it.

When the Berlin Wall fell, language training programs had to turn on a dime to meet urgent peacetime requirements, which were “more stringent than we ever had in the Cold War” according to the then-chancellor of DLI. One student considered the new training requirements a new job entirely, a change from translating intercepted communications to actually communicating with Russian counterparts about missile disarmament and “making small talk on the plane ride to the missile site.”

This rapid shift—and the scramble that followed—prompted the American military to rethink its language courses and prepare for the fact that “young linguists will need better language-speaking skills and a deeper appreciation of foreign cultures.”

Lacking Arabic after 9/11

The Cold War era taught us the importance of committing to well-rounded language skills and cultural knowledge. But the post-9/11 era did not see the same groundswell of support for language learning when Arabic skills were desperately lacking. Legislation modeled after the National Defense Education Act (the same piece of legislation that bolstered Russian language education) failed to make it out of committee, never reaching a vote in Congress.

The Modern Language Association’s Language Enrollment Database maintains all higher ed enrollment data since 1958. In the two years following the launch of Sputnik, Russian studies among students enrolled in four-year institutions spiked from about 16,000 to over 31,000. But one year after 9/11, only about 8,700 students attending four-year institutions were enrolled in an Arabic course. That’s a far cry from the Cold War numbers for Russian, and a tiny fraction of other language enrollments in 2002, including 530,000 students were learning Spanish.

The lack of support left America effectively mute when it came to communicating in Arabic and other critical languages at the time. Dan E. Davidson, the President of the American Councils for International Education, made the level of need clear: “Compared to the Cold War, we’re not even at the level of zero […] we’re at minus one.”

A report in early 2002 by the General Accounting Office confirmed that shortages of linguists had ”hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts” for at least four agencies, including the military, State Department, Foreign Commercial Service, and FBI. The FBI, for example, had thousands of hours of audio and thousands of pages of documents in Arabic and Central Asian languages that needed to be translated.

The good news is that more than 30,000 students were studying Arabic by the 2016 academic year. The bad news is that overall foreign language enrollments are down (experiencing the second largest drop since 1958), and all these years later American still faces a foreign language gap that leaves us unprepared for many opportunities and obstacles.

Responding to the Ebola epidemic—in the wrong language

Language is entangled in more than the intelligence or military aspects of security, including global health. One of the greatest threats to any population is the rapid emergence and spread of disease—even when it’s happening a world away.

Consider the Ebola outbreak in west Africa in 2014 that claimed more than 10,000 lives. Ebola is highly contagious, but we also know how to contain it. Communicating that information to affected populations quickly and clearly is at the heart of containment efforts. That task is made more difficult—90 times more difficult, perhaps—when the affected countries speak more than 90 local languages. With most materials disseminated in English and French, much of the population was left in “deadly ignorance”.

Multilateral government relief efforts, non-profits, and other responders must be prepared to work in the context of the local culture—including the local languages. Aimee Ansari, Executive Director of Translators without Borders highlights language as being equally important as food or water in times of crisis:

“Meaningful two-way communication fulfils a vital function in an emergency response, as pivotal as providing food, water, or health services. To keep themselves and their families safe, people need critical information in a language they understand, such as, in the case of Ebola, how to best wash their hands or bury their loved ones. To be effective and accountable, responders need to be able to understand the needs and concerns of affected people.”

Reaching international business potential (or not)

Language preparedness is also more than an attempt at survival in the face of global political, security, or health challenges. It is a key factor in our ability to thrive on the wings of rising economic opportunities around the world.

In 2013, only 1.561 million U.S. college students were taking any foreign language classes (a number that has since dropped another 9.2%). But in 2014, a NAFSA: Association of International Educators study revealed that almost 30% of executives say they’ve “missed out on opportunities over a lack of on-staff language skills.” Upwards of 40% said language barriers prevented them from reaching their “international potential”.

This is not a new trend, nor one that will soon wane. The global economy is trending away from the traditional English-speaking powerhouses. Economists predict that China’s economy will surpass America’s during our lifetime, while markets in Brazil, India, and beyond continue to expand. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, exports accounted for half of post-recession U.S. economic growth, and “future U.S. growth will increasingly depend on selling U.S. goods and services to foreign consumers who do not necessarily speak English.”

These “goods” range from architecture to insurance to mobile technology, meaning language skills complement nearly every industry, not just the obvious ones. As noted in the Boston Globe, “banks and cellphone providers are hiring employees who can communicate with potential customers in their native tongues. Software firms are seeking out translators and customer service representatives who can help them build their business around the world. And health care providers looking to serve the immigrants in their communities, as well as patients traveling to the United States for medical care, are beefing up their staffs with people who can understand, and convey, their concerns.”

Language and cultural competency are in demand not just in large, diverse cities like New York or Miami, either. It seems the entire country is seeking a bilingual workforce; the number of online job listings “targeting bilingual workers more than doubled nationwide between 2010 and 2015, rising 162 percent, according to a new report by New American Economy.” In Colorado alone, job postings seeking bilingual candidates doubled between 2011 and 2014, for example.

Is history beating a dead, multilingual horse?

With all of these examples in front of us, why haven’t we learned our lesson? Past events emphasize the critical role of languages in communicating with foreign populations, collaborating with foreign partners, and containing foreign threats. Yet fewer than 20% of K-12 students are enrolled in a foreign language class (compared to the average rate of 90% across Europe) and higher ed enrollments are down more than 9% since 2013.

If we stay on that trajectory, we may risk being left out of the conversation entirely. So, what should we learn from our past failures?

Emphasize foreign language as part of a well-rounded education.

The language gap is perpetuating in the wake of the “great recession”. As businesses, non-profits, and policy makers promote STEM subjects, enrollment in the humanities is dangerously low.

When introducing the iPad 2 in 2011, Steve Jobs highlighted the companionship between STEM and the humanities: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

Policy makers must give languages parity with other subjects, rather than replacing them with coding languages, as some states have already done. Communities can also step up and support heritage language learning. Immigrants should be encouraged to pass their language down to their children just as much as they are encouraged to learn English themselves.

Be prepared in terms of language abilities and training capabilities.

The more young people learning foreign languages in school or at home, the more prepared our country will be for threats, disasters, economic opportunities, and other needs. Making language learning opportunities available to all learners—and in a wide array of languages large and small—is the first step to closing to language gap.

For dominant world languages like Spanish, French, Mandarin, and yes even Russian and Arabic now, public education is capable of producing a large pool of expertise from which to pull. But it’s impossible to know which languages may be of extreme importance down the road. What about Khmer, Tamil, Somali, or Tagalog? Or even smaller, indigenous languages like Quechua or Maori? It’s simply not practical to train a team of experts in every potential language of interest.

But when an earthquake strikes Nepal and relief agencies need speakers of Nepali and other regional languages of the Himalayas, it is possible to prepare quicker. While the country at large needs to invest in language education, organizations need to invest in language training. Rapidly creating and deploying specialized training materials is possible now thanks to technology—it’s what we do. Best of all, that expertise can easily be shared among other agencies, organizations, non-profits, or others trying to hurdle the language barrier. When it comes to language skills, we like to think learning from the past and making progress is a shared venture.

As we’ve all heard: those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. Today more than ever, we must seek new ways to promote, teach, and share language expertise so we can be prepared for tomorrow.

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  1. Robert H. Long:

    I taught French, Spanish,English for over 30 years from elementary thr o ugh college levels
    I know 5 languages and last years have learned Italian, Latin, some Esperanto and Russian.
    You are preaching to the choir with this great article. Could you send it to my local paper to see if they would republish it?



  2. Kurt:

    I agree. Unfortunately, most people do not see the importance of language.
    In my school, the students of my year take nearly everything they lack interest in simply as something they need to study or else they fail. When it comes to language, it is more disappointing that they don’t bother learning it. A possible reason is that the method is ineffective, but I wonder if it is simply disinterest. Our Chinese classes (which teach standard Mandarin) are not always focused on the language itself but sometimes on culture. While it is good to know, it is not necessary for language learning. The fact that our Chinese classes lack a lot of lessons about grammar and mostly about vocabulary makes them significantly inefficient.
    In our Filipino classes, we have lessons about vocabulary, Filipino classics (like Noli Me Tangere in Grade 9, “Touch Me Not”, and El Filibusterismo in Grade 10, “The Filibuster”), stories to supposedly improve our Filipino, and more seldom grammar. Vocabulary outweighs grammar in importance, but isn’t it more fun if we can actually put words together with an ever-growing complexity?
    And most schools lack spaced repetition. How can anyone retain what they learned in school if there is no spaced repetition in the lessons? We will definitely not progress if no one brings the past lessons up once in a while.
    Anyway, the UN should make Esperanto more popular so that the whole world might have an easier time learning a language as simple as that. It should be more widespread so that we can communicate better. We could also use Pidgin, but that would require more languages to put together.

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