Foreign Languages and Studies

International trade, travel, communication, and migration are increasing Americans' contact with foreign languages and cultures. Although the power of the United States (following the historical power of Britain) has made English a world language, that same power also brings Americans into contact with foreigners more frequently than ever before. We send tourists, business representatives, diplomats, and soldiers to every corner of the globe, and hordes of people from other nations come here to live or to do business. We also have large communities of American-born people who have historically spoken languages other than English. As a result, mastery of foreign language and understanding of foreign culture are the foundations of several occupations and businesses.

The most effective way to learn a language other than English is to hear it spoken in the home during childhood, and large numbers of Americans learn this way. However, four-fifths of us do not have this experience, and among those who do, many learn the language at a level that enables them to navigate the kitchen but not to speak well enough to work in, say, international business.

Most Americans who learn another language do so in classes. Most middle schools and the vast majority of secondary schools offer these classes, and so do about one-quarter of elementary schools. In the 2007–2008 academic year, 8.9 million K–12 students, or about 18.5 percent, were enrolled in a foreign language course. Spanish is the most commonly taught language by far. Other languages gain or lose popularity in response as their countries of origin gain or lose influence on the world stage. For example, French and German are now in decline, and Chinese and Arabic are gaining. Foreign language instruction for adults is available at specialized language schools, on the Web, and in community college and adult-school classes. The Defense Department offers many language-training programs for members of the armed forces and for various federal agencies through the Defense Language Institute.

Undergraduate- and graduate-level courses and majors are also available for wide-ranging study of foreign cultures, going beyond mastery of the language. These programs are known as area studies and include such majors as Latin American studies, East Asian studies, African studies, and so forth. Students who major in one of these fields usually spend some time living in the region that interests them.

In the United States, approximately 50,000 people work as interpreters and translators. Most of them work with a foreign language, although this number includes some sign language interpreters. Interpreters translate a foreign language as it is spoken; translators work with the written word. Some accompany travelers; others facilitate communication at conferences.

Specialists in localization adapt a product developed in one culture for buyers in another culture, paying attention to more issues than just language. For example, packaging with graphics may need to show people who look different from those in the product's country of origin. Other experts on foreign culture advise businesses engaged in foreign trade, foreign policy advisers, and intelligence agencies.


Career Update Newsletter

Tips and tools to help you manage your ideal career.