It’s not news that monolingualism is the norm in the United States; fewer than 20% of Americans speak more than one language. In a recent article, CIA Seeks Anyone, Anyone Who Can Speak 2 Languages, Jeremy Hsu notes that the lack of second- and third-language speakers in the US – especially of those languages of interest to the CIA and Foreign Service – has prompted government agencies to recruit college students based on language learning potential, rather than on actual skills. A new government program is in development to help agencies like the CIA, who are looking to increase its pool of speakers of languages such as Arabic, Dari, Pashtu, Persian, Urdu and Russian. The challenge? Figuring out how to predict which students hold the most promise. Studies of multilingual speakers are providing insight:
“Another surprise came from studies of Spanish-speaking immigrants, because neither age nor language proficiency seemed to predict how quickly the immigrants picked up English. Instead, the fastest learners showed both the greatest motivation to learn and a willingness to use English at every opportunity despite being bad at it (at first).”
Hsu also notes that it’s not just government agencies who are recruiting multilingual speakers, but US-based corporations who understand that, in the era of globalization, linguistic and cultural competence go a long way.>A bit of motivation and the willingness to put your foot in your mouth from time to time can be a powerful combination in developing the language skills your country – and perhaps your next job – depend on. And if it helps you order a drink or ask for directions on your next international vacation, that’s not a bad thing, either!