IF Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer entered a McDonald's in Paris and ordered a Big Mac and freedom fries, would the 19-year-old on the other side of the counter be conversant in English?
Probably. She wouldn't be able to discuss French tax policy with Schaefer, but she could point the way to the loo and the Louvre. She probably learned English in school - in a country where xenophobia is at least as rampant as it is in the United States.
Multilingualism, and its twin sister multiculturalism, are facts of life in most of the Western world. They've been made so by world commerce, which honors no language or country borders, and by international travel and politics. Only one nation, the good old U.S.A., is a holdout.
I realized this again on a recent cruise between two of the world's great cities: Baltimore and Rome. The ship's crew was drawn from 57 countries, and every last man and woman, from waiter to captain, was fluent in English.
Not so the 1,700 passengers, most of whom were tongue-tied Americans who had never learned one of the four major European languages encountered on the trip: Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian.
Yet everywhere the ship put in, from the Azores, isolated in the eastern Atlantic, to the cosmopolitan cities of Italy, English speakers were abundant. In all but France, public signage was in two, sometimes three and four languages.
In Gibraltar, the British outpost on the southern tip of Spain, English is the official language, but many residents speak Spanish and Arabic, reflecting the cultures immediately to the north and south. Shoppers hold British pound notes in one pocket, European euros in the other. Both are good in most stores, although not at the post office, where the pound prevails.
I took to asking people - cabdrivers, waiters, store clerks, post office workers, bartenders and the like - where they had learned their excellent English. Almost all said in school. Yes, even in France, which once considered itself the home of the world language, kids are learning English in public schools. And they're learning it early, when the brain is receptive and foreign languages can be picked up easily.
The late Illinois senator, Paul Simon, is the man who coined the phrase "tongue-tied American." In his 1980 book by that title, Simon noted that Americans could graduate from high school and college, even earn a doctorate, without knowing a foreign language. "We should erect a sign at each port of entry into the United States," Simon wrote. "'Welcome to the U.S. We cannot speak your language.'"
Everything Simon wrote nearly a quarter of a century ago is true today in a nation that's rapidly becoming multicultural. Critics of multiculturalism seem to think there's a choice about it. But there isn't. Children in school today will live to see a nation in which Spanish is the dominant language. They ought to be learning it, but they're not, except in places like El Paso, where bilingualism is a matter of survival.
True, Maryland requires two credits of a foreign language for high school graduation. But there's an out for students who aren't in advanced classes. They can substitute two credits of "advanced technology" or a "state-approved career and technology program." Maryland state officials said yesterday that they don't keep statistics on how many students opt for the alternatives, but a safe bet is that in Baltimore City few students take the foreign language route.
There are no Maryland high school exit tests in foreign languages, so there's little incentive to take the language requirement seriously. The desire has to come from within. A student has to want to become a citizen of the world, has to know that multiculturalism and multilingualism are the way of a changing world.
Otherwise, Americans are bound to remain the clowns on the world's stage.
Preparing to nurture a new wave of immigrants
Here's a sign of the multicultural times: The College of Notre Dame of Maryland is about to launch its first doctoral program, in "instructional leadership for changing populations." The program, which begins this fall and will issue its first doctoral degrees in 2009, is "designed to equip teachers to provide instructional leadership for linguistically and culturally non-mainstream learners at the classroom level," according to a news release.
Translation: Foreign immigration to Maryland accounted for 44 percent of new residents between 1990 and 2000, according to the state Department of Planning. Teachers need to know more about teaching the children of these newcomers, many of whom are learning English as a second language.
The program brings Notre Dame full circle, notes Suzanne Shipley, the school's vice president for academic affairs. Founded by a congregation whose nuns came from Germany to educate the children of immigrants, Notre Dame again turns its attention to the needs of a new wave of immigrants.