Sunday, November 10, 2013

Is America losing its one global advantage in human capital?

In my previous post on America’s Resource Curse, I include as one of our most valuable natural resources our gigantic reserves of native English speakers. Considering how much money and how many instructional hours other countries invest in getting students proficient in English, and how much money America’s native English speakers can make off of the resulting ESL industry, it’s hard to underestimate just how much of a relative economic advantage we Americans gain as a result.

Think of it: most of us are born into an immersion environment that confers on us naturally (via the innate human capacity to learn a first language) a highly marketable skill that the rest of the world spends a huge amount of money trying to confer artificially (through hours and hours of deliberate instruction).

When I think of this advantage, I think in particular of those of us who graduate from college without any clear career goals and then stumble upon one of the many programs for teaching English in East Asia. We head off to China, Japan, or Thailand for a couple of years, often launching our careers in the process. That’s exactly what happened to me. I spent a year teaching English in Hong Kong, which gave me the opportunity to become fluent in Cantonese, which made me an attractive enough applicant to the graduate program in linguistics at the University of Chicago that I was awarded a generous 4-year fellowship even though I hadn't taken a single linguistics class in college. I supplemented my stipend by teaching English in Chicago’s Chinatown, completing my degree one year after my fellowship ended. My Ph.D. in linguistics has been crucial to every job I’ve held ever since.

Two of my college classmates, now professional writers with Wikipedia pages, launched their careers with books about their experiences living in East Asia—experiences made possible by their jobs as ESL teachers. Mark Salzman's Iron and Silk centers on his two post-college years in China; Bruce Feiler’s Learning to Bow portrays life in the small Japanese town he lived in during his first two years after college.

How many native Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, or Igbo speaker have similar opportunities?

But the times, they are a changin’. As always, it’s all about technology and globalization. Automatic translation programs like Google Translate are becoming ever more widespread and accurate, and however far they still have to go, they reduce both the man hours required for translation, and the need for texts to be composed in English. At the same time, countries around the world are getting better at teaching their students English without so much help from us Americans—to the point where things sometimes come full circle. A friend of mine who teaches in the University of Pennsylvania English Language Programs (and whose career was launched by a year teaching English in Czechoslovakia) has been supervising ESL teachers from mainland China who are currently teaching English--to U.S. residents of Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

America’s home-grown ESL programs, meanwhile, appear poised to decline substantially in quality, at least at the K12 level, in what looks to be yet another casualty of the Common Core Standards. But that's a subject for another post.

1 comment:

Auntie Ann said...

I keep thinking about this. I think you've hit on something important.