Compared to most other countries, the U.S. has an incredibly high literacy rate and continues to ensure that the youth can read and write. According to the CIA World Fact Book, the U.S. has a literacy rate of 99 percent. Literacy is defined by the CIA as a “resident of the United States age 15 or over that can read or write.” The literacy rate of a country is a strong indicator of the quality and the accessibility of education. With the world’s changing economy, however, it seems just being able to read and write in a country’s respective language won’t be enough.
Think about it. When a student graduates with a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree, he is supposedly armed with the skill set and knowledge required to be successful in an entry level job in a given career. One of the key skills any company will ask of you is the ability to communicate. Can you efficiently communicate with individuals or groups of people? How effectively can you lead a group of your peers? Do people like taking direction from you? These are all questions that fresh out of college graduates could face.
If today’s job market looked like the relatively prosperous one from the early to mid 1990s, many of us could answer the questions above with a defiant yes. I, for one, think the American schooling system does an excellent job of training students how to communicate and connect with peers and colleagues.
For the global job market of today, the definition of literacy has changed. In a time where many young Americans are working with colleagues from countries like China, India and Brazil, it is not a rare scene to see struggles with the language and cultural barriers when working in a multicultural and multiethnic environment.
Students were required to take a certain amount of foreign language credits at my elementary and middle schools in the Blue Valley school district. The courses were very structured and helped students gain an understanding of the language. But after we were no longer forced to take a foreign language, the majority of students dropped the classes.
This could be a costly mistake for many students. As they will come upon opportunities, they may find out learning how to communicate in a different language will become essential to advance.
Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” gave an example in a March 4 interview on CNN’s “Your Money: Restoring the American Dream” of why education, particularly learning other languages, is crucial. Americans who can speak Chinese have a huge advantage in the job market because they can work closely with Chinese businesses, managing supply chains and other things.
Universities in the U.S. should take this observation to heart, and one of the ways to do so is through the study abroad program. For decades, study abroad programs have been treated as a supplement to an education. It has always been an option some students explore to see a different country and experience a new way of life.
But what if the study abroad programs at university levels were a mandatory part of students’ educations? Though this may be a costly requirement, it is almost an essential investment. Imagine what American students could achieve if they had a quality education along with real world experience in a different country. Having the chance to interact with locals in a different country will give students the opportunity to be immersed in a culture, and to experience linguistics and other aspects they can’t learn from books or classrooms.
A study abroad experience will provide students a strong base for learning new languages, and learning new languages will only make American students more skilled and equipped to take on professional challenges. These experiences are becoming a necessity as the world moves closer together. As a way to prepare students for the work force, requiring students to travel and learn a foreign language is needed to remain globally competitive.