Letters to the Editor: When America blew its chance to be a multilingual country

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 17: Prof. Carlos Brown, MD, teaches in Spanish language to women getting trained to be a homeware provider for In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) Program at Los Angeles City College on Friday, March 17, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Professor Carlos Brown teaches a Spanish-language class at Los Angeles City College on March 17. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

To the editor: I read with interest editorial writer Minerva Canto's article on multilingualism in America, pointing out that 78% of U.S. residents speak only English. Although the U.S. doesn’t currently emphasize language learning, for a brief period that was not the case.

The Soviets' surprise launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957 came as a wake-up call for the United States. In response, the Eisenhower administration created the National Defense Education Act Title IV fellowships.

While the main purpose was to provide the U.S. with engineering and mathematics experts, it also paid students to pursue foreign languages. I received generous funding to get a doctorate from Stanford in German.

I went on to teach German at UCLA and Pomona College totally debt-free. But in 1973, America’s priorities shifted. The foreign language requirement was abolished by colleges almost everywhere— after all, doesn’t everyone speak English? — and after eight years in the field, my position was eliminated.

The ranks of college-level language teachers were decimated. I never found another job teaching a foreign language.

Eric Wilson, Santa Monica


To the editor: I wish my Hungarian parents had encouraged me to speak and learn that language. But they were so fearful that if I did I would have an accent like theirs in English, which marked them.

Therefore, the language the elders in the family spoke was forbidden to me. I could always understand what they were saying — I had to know the secrets — but I could never join in. I feel I missed something important.

I believe fluency in other languages is important and helpful, not only for a possible job, but perhaps even more for the mental acuity that language acquisition provides.

Margo Kasdan, Seal Beach

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.