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Where Have All the Languages Gone?

By my count, representatives from more than 400 organizations and universities from around the world helped to fill the NAFSA conference expo space to capacity. There were many good messages about welcoming U.S. students and innovative study abroad and internship programs. Many made a special effort to point out just how many courses and programs are now taught entirely in English. That is good news, and bad.

U.S. student enrollment in foreign-language studies is declining for the first time in 20 years and just at a time when we need more Americans who are able to speak the languages and understand the cultures where they are visiting, studying, and may possibly work someday. Tens of thousands of federal jobs remain vacant because we do not have enough foreign language speakers to fill them. The U.S. Foreign Service has fewer Arabic speakers than my alma mater has students majoring in film studies.

So, as I went from booth to booth to get more information, I had two thoughts. First, there is clearly more opportunity to study abroad than ever before, with so many countries making a big effort to show that Americans will be welcome. Second, I hope the Generation Study Abroad millennials will realize that while English tends to be the lingua franca there are still many reasons to learn more than a few words from people with whom we share the world.

General Colin Powell once told me that he learned just enough German during his army deployments in the country to get directions to the nearest off-base restaurant. But, he said, he should have learned a whole lot more.