University of Iowa

World Languages

September 24th, 2010

By Downing Thomas, Dean of International Programs

As I see the many new international faces on campus this fall, I am also hearing many languages–on the bus and on the streets, in the hallways, and in the Old Capital Centre where our offices are located and where many students hang out eating lunch or studying in between classes.  It occurs to me that these many languages of Iowa City (who would have thought?) drive home the fact that our monolingualism in the U.S. is the exception rather than the rule.  I suspect that the increasing numbers of international students at the University of Iowa are conveying this important fact to all of our students, particularly those from the Midwest who have not ventured far from home.

As Catherine Porter–past President of the Modern Language Association–has noted, among the world’s 206 countries, only 12 are characterized as having only one language.  In Indonesia, there are 580 languages.  In Papua New Guinea, 750+ languages have been recorded.  Two or or more languages are spoken in 94% of the world’s countries.  2/3 of the world’s children grow up in bilingual environments.  As global perspectives and globalization become increasingly important, and indeed as English continues to serve as the premier international language, it is all the more important for us in the U.S. to have a strong knowledge of world languages and cultures.  As several countries around the world grow in importance–economically as well as demographically–and as we see internship and work opportunities grow abroad, U.S. students need to have the skills and knowledge to operate with some level of comfort, regardless of where they are.

When I hear Portuguese or Mandarin Chinese on the bus, I think of what we need to emphasize in the education we provide all students here at the University of Iowa.

Downing Thomas
Downing Thomas