The Economic and Social Impact of Language

Six months ago, I decided that I wanted to learn Bengali. It’s not offered at my school, nor is it offered at any other college or university in Rhode Island. There’s no Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur or Livemocha or BBC Languages or Babel or LingQ. I’ve resorted to Skyping with a tutor in Dhaka.

Maybe you’re not shocked. Nobody learns Bengali.

In 2009, 97 American undergraduates studied Bengali, the 7th most spoken language in the world. Translation? Less than 100 American students were studying a language spoken by 193 million people in the world. Consequently, we aren’t being prepared for engagement in a country with a $2,100 per capita GDP. Some major news stories about Bangladesh have reached my Twitter feed in the past few months: A factory collapsed and over a thousand lives are lost. Hundreds of thousands are suffering due to groundwater contaminated by nuclear waste. Hundreds died in a killing spree committed by police and other government officials. We can report on these tragedies in our news outlets with some interpreted interviews, and perhaps send basic aid, but we face a stiff language barrier when we communicate with those that are most affected. And, without open and honest conversations, is it appropriate for us to try to help?

Bengali, Javanese, Lahnda (Punjabi), Telugu, Vietnamese, Marathi, Tamil. A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of some of these languages. Now I know that they’re among the 20 most spoken worldwide, and they’re not offered at most American universities. And, in 2010, Arne Duncan announced that 95% of American college students in language classes were taking European languages.

This is paralyzing. It doesn’t promote growth in our global economy, it’s not supporting global politics and communication, and it’s a major concern for our nation’s security interests. We are also not preparing to engage with some of the world’s poorest populations.

But what does that mean for our future?

95%. That does not reflect the skills the next generation will need as we face the political, social, economic and environmental battles of our shared future

What do you care about?


World peace?

Gender equality?

Access to water?

Education and literacy?

Our generation faces a society that has adopted English as a global language, but we cannot forget that learning other languages initiates deeper connections and more trustful relationships between diverse communities. Language is more than a pragmatic communication system. Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Through shared language, students can become sensitive global activists and pursue productive community partnerships.

You may ask yourself: Why should I learn one of these underrepresented languages? Why should my child be studying Vietnamese instead of French? Guaraní instead of Spanish? What is the value of learning Punjabi or Bengali when the educated elite already speak English?

For a moment, discard the notion that everyone speaks English. Ask yourself: Who is “everyone” in that scenario? In many of these communities, the people who would most benefit from an outreached hand aren’t the people who learned fluent English in school.

For one final comparison, compare our map to a map of the Human Development Index:

Languages Taught:

Human Development:

In these maps, we see that most American students study languages that are associated with high human development indices.

How are we going to contribute to solutions without communicating with those who are most affected? How will we even be able to identify the struggles that plague these communities? Will we be able to understand how to find sources of problems and support communities as they seek change? Can we empower communities with a hand up instead of a handout?

In 2004, the Modern Language Association noted a sense of crisis in higher language education driven by what was called “the nation’s language deficit.” Students are not learning languages at a rate that supports global interests, even those labeled “critical languages” by our State Department— Bengali, for example, is among these 13 languages. How can we begin to address this deficit if we cannot even find opportunities to learn these underrepresented languages?

Right now, there are people across the world who are left out of the conversation. They’re forgotten. It is time for us to transform our perception of language, culture, and engagement in this ever-shrinking world.


This was originally posted on Deb Mills-Scofield‘s blog, Innovanomics.


Amelia Friedman

Amelia Friedman

Amelia is the founder and executive director of the Student Language Exchange, an education nonprofit she founded while in college. She graduated magna cum laude from Brown University in May 2014. There, she helped teach a course on leading social ventures, served as a mentor to student entrepreneurs, and was selected as a C.V. Starr Social Entrepreneurship Fellow. An active global education advocate, Amelia has written about language learning for Forbes, the Huffington Post and USA Today. Amelia has been invited to speak about social enterprise and the Student Language Exchange at the U.S. Capitol, SXSW, TEDx, and numerous academic conferences. She is currently a Halcyon Fellow living in Washington, D.C.

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