Ten minutes into the soccer game, Sebastian's cries of "here," "behind you," and "cross it" became cries of "aquí," "atrás," and "al centro." I'd never heard so much Spanish pour out of my 10-year-old. There is nothing like a hunger for the ball. And nothing like full immersion in a foreign language.

I brought Sebastian to San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico for weeks of Spanish and art classes. But mostly, I wanted him to soak up the atmosphere of his other country, the one where his dad was raised.


I grew up in Mexico, in a split household — American mother, Mexican father. Two languages, two passports, two sets of cultural mores. I grew up synthesizing, comparing, navigating, blending mischievously. Toggling between two worlds is what experts in bilingualism call it. My parents did what I haven't done adequately for my son — they forced me to speak the other language (in our case, English) at home to make us fully bilingual.

My own son generally goes about his fourth-grade, suburban Maryland existence fairly confident he lives in the center of the universe, with little need to learn from the rest of the world.

The dirty little secret is that the more Sebastian steps out of his comfort zone, and the more he learns about his other country and culture, the better he will also come to understand the United States. Imagine if you spent your entire life going out to only one restaurant. Doesn't your appreciation and understanding of a place require some comparative context?

That's why all Americans should adopt a second country, if they don't already have one.

Here's how it would work: Every American second grader would be assigned a second country. School districts would organize annual festivals around a lottery that matched kids with their second countries. Thanks to the ubiquity of interactive learning software, hundreds of kids in a school could be learning dozens of languages during this "global hour" by connecting to their fellow Pashtun or German or Vietnamese students and teacher remotely. (Occasionally kids and guest speakers in the foreign country would join the conversation.)

Under my proposal, kids would study their second language and culture through high school, and be provided creative exchange and entertainment opportunities within their bi-national community. Students would belong to strong networks connecting them not only to their assigned country, but also to others across America assigned to the same country. The result would go beyond creating a far more cosmopolitan and informed citizenry. This would be the most ambitious public diplomacy ever deployed by a great power.

America's economic competitiveness and security interests would also be served by having a deep bench of regional experts, of people invested in other cultures. As Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan noted in a 2010 speech on foreign language education, 95 percent of college students enrolled in a language course study European languages, but fewer than 1 percent study a language the Defense Department considers critical to national security. Even when language study is influenced by market-based reactions to what's in the news — the post-Sputnik spike in Russian study, the post-9/11 spike in Arabic study — the results tend to be transitory and scattered.

By contrast, my second grade students-to-countries matching lottery would guarantee a more rational distribution of interest and knowledge. We need Americans who understand and appreciate Indonesia, Kenya and even countries like the Netherlands, regardless of whether they happen to be in the news. These long-term relationships with their second countries would be among the most rewarding and fun educational experiences for American kids.

That's my proposal, anyway. Back here in the real world, however, the trends are heading in the opposite direction. Less than one in five Americans speaks another language (compared to slightly more than half of all Europeans) and many of these Americans, in immigrant families, wouldn't have picked up the language in school. Only a quarter of all elementary schools offered foreign language instruction in 2008, compared to about a third a decade earlier. In our schoolyards, it's as if the rest of the world were shrinking in economic and strategic importance to us.

Meanwhile, I will continue trying to expand Sebastian's horizons and appreciation for his other country. A Father's Day lunch in San Miguel was a modest score along the way. Sebastian blurted out, "They should do this in the States," referring to the sliced limes routinely served at meals here. I smiled. The boy was thinking comparatively, assessing how restaurants, and countries, vary — and can learn from each other.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. His email is andres@zocalopublicsquare.org.