A decreasing number of primary and secondary schools are teaching any foreign language. That's one sign of a continued disengagement between Americans and a planet they have such a big impact on — and that they 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.
Most Americans are still incredibly insular, and that costs the country dearly. 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 10 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.
While U.S. exports have been climbing, 140 economies (out of 146 with export data from the World Bank in 2010) exported more than the United States when measured as a share of their GDPs. Only Nepal, Brazil, Haiti, Ethiopia and Tonga did worse than the U.S. export share (13 percent of GDP), according to the World Bank. Afghanistan outdid the United States by 2 percentage points of GDP. And China's export share was more than twice as big, at 30 percent.
Or look at investment trends. According to World Bank data, in 2010 U.S. net outflows of foreign direct investment — where American investors were taking a 10 percent or larger share of a foreign company — amounted to 2.4 percent of U.S. GDP. Twenty economies were above it in that share — compare Germany on 3.3 percent of GDP, Chile at 4.1 percent, or Singapore on 9.5 percent.
If there is a silver lining to this cloud of Americans' disengagement, it is that other countries aren't doing so badly. We have seen there are 20 economies with a higher share of GDP going to foreign direct investment that the United States, and 140 that are exporting more. These countries are reaping the gains of closer global engagement — in terms of stronger economic performance and greater technology transfer. There's at least the hope that the closer economic ties will make them less likely to go to war, too. Americans benefit from being in that richer and more pacific world — even if they could do even better by venturing out into it a little more often.
Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, and author, most recently, of "Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More."
© 2012 Foreign Policy