Critical Languages

The United States is largely a monolingual nation. The global innovation age demands greater multilingualism.


English is the most widely spoken language in the world. About 25% of the world’s population report some English-language ability, which means a significant portion of people do not. Only 5.5% of the world use English as their primary language.

With these numbers, it’s no surprise that the business and national security sectors report great shortages of qualified applicants, namely those who are bi- or multilingual. Some of the greatest needs are around Asian languages: Bangla/Bengali, Chinese, Hindi, Bahasa Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, and Urdu.

There is abundant research that shows language learning sharpens cognitive abilities in other disciplines. Learning languages also provides important perspective in understanding one’s native language(s) and culture(s).

Learn more


Demand is high, but the supply side cannot keep pace. Critical languages are mostly offered at the higher education level. Chinese language is beginning to be the one exception, but it still accounts for approximately 1 – 2% of language learning among American youth. Only 20% of American elementary and secondary students receive any foreign language education. Pipeline programs, which are language programs that build from skills from beginning language to proficiency, are rare.

The picture is very different in other leading economic countries. In Europe, some 90% of students learn languages in primary school. In China, students start a foreign language course, often English, in the third grade. Japan, too, has made English a compulsory course in elementary school.


The best school systems in the world focus on language learning; they know it translates to future success in a global economy.

Asia Society advocates that language learning must be part of our world-class education system. On the policy and private sectors side, we do this through commissioning and publishing research, writing policy briefs, and advocating for greater language program funding.

Strategies to Get Us to Scale

Asia Society regularly convenes experts in language education and shares ideas, models, and tools.

  • National Chinese Language Conference
  • Confucius Classrooms Network
  • Chinese Language Program Handbook
  • Chinese Language Learning in the Early Years
Learn more