By Frankie Sturm
Frankie Sturm, a volunteer teacher at Language ETC, is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He taught English in France from 2004 to 2006. A longer version of this essay appeared on August 1, 2010, in World Politics Review, a daily online publication on foreign affairs.
Disney is picking up steam in China, and in addition to bringing cartoon characters, theme parks, and Americana, it’s also bringing the English language. U.S. policymakers should take notice.
During the next five years, Disney will spearhead a massive expansion of English-language schools in China, from a mere 11 today to 148 by 2015. The expansion could deliver operating earnings of more than $100 million.
In other words, teaching English is good for business. But it can also deliver strategic benefits in terms of trade, public diplomacy, and even military strength. That’s why English-language programs should be given more priority in U.S. foreign policy.
It’s obvious that a common language helps bolster trade. This is good news for English-speakers, given the prevalence of English as the international language. However, Anglophones shouldn’t rest on their laurels. Of the 30 fastest-growing economies in 2009, only five list English as an official language. Ten do not even list English as a secondary language. And as non-English-speaking nations expand their influence in the world economy, they will create an incentive for people to learn languages other than English. Indeed, from 2002 to 2007, the number of non-Chinese learning Mandarin jumped to 30 million. If China continues to out-invest the West in places like Africa, that number will only increase.
Teaching English can also provide a helping hand to U.S. public diplomacy. Take Pakistan, where the U.S. is funding expensive television content that portrays the life of Muslims in America. Unfortunately, according to Katherine Brown, a former communications adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul who recently returned from a research trip to Pakistan, such efforts are instantly received by their target audience as propaganda.
By contrast, Brown said via e-mail, “Pakistanis, especially the youth, admire American innovation, so what’s most welcomed from American public diplomacy efforts is education and vocational training. Mix that in with English-language education, and America would be giving Pakistanis what they want: skills to succeed in a global marketplace.”
The U.S. military also has an interest in promoting the English language. “A critical piece of building partnerships is the training required to become interoperable with our allies and partners,” says Glenn Anderson, of the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for International Affairs. “This training includes flight training, maintenance training, and other professional military education, but it also includes English-language training.” But there’s a more long-term benefit, one that has to do with building alliances and developing relationships. “Friendships [develop] in the classroom, and we see this when we bring in officers from other countries for English-language training,” Anderson points out. “Now fast-forward 20 years, and some of those officers will be military and political leaders in their home countries. So all of the sudden we’ll have friends in high places.”
In spite of these benefits, the U.S. has not given English-language programming the funding priority it deserves. To its credit, the Obama administration did request additional funds for English-language programs in its FY2010 budget, but the overall numbers remain low.
In 2010, Congress appropriated $46.5 million for the State Department’s English-language programs, and the State Department employed 28 English Language Officers. As for the military, the Air Force, which is responsible for the Defense Language Institute’s English Language Center, estimates that it will need $4.4 million in 2011 to develop a plan for the strategic use of English and to expand programs to teach English to foreign security forces. But these numbers remain small compared to funding for “critical need languages” such as Arabic.
U.S. funding for English programs looks even smaller when compared to a country that knows a thing or two about promoting its language: France. France spends more than $1 billion each year promoting the teaching of the French language around the world. The Agence universitaire de la francophonie, a network of French-speaking universities, has a budget of about €40 million, most of which comes from the French government. Then there’s the Agence pour l’enseignement français à l’étranger, which promotes French-language education all over the world. It receives €320 million per year from the French Foreign Ministry. That’s beaucoup funding, and it has allowed France to maintain and expand political clout that it would otherwise not have.
Of course, teaching English won’t root out the Taliban in Afghanistan or halt Iran’s nuclear program. But in the quest for geopolitical leadership, it can give America a “soft power” edge that other nations cannot equal. At a time when pundits are heralding America’s “decline,” the English language offers the United States an easy way to lock in clear economic, diplomatic, and military advantages. If Mickey Mouse can make it work in China, surely America can make it work around the world.