It is LESS important for a speaker of English to learn another language than it has ever been. I am aware that this statement will sound backward and xenophobic to many, but as a person who spoke three languages fluently (Portuguese, Norwegian & Polish), one “enough to get by (German) and two with decent reading ability (Latin & Greek), I feel I have some standing about this subject.
Let me bring up the caveat right at the start. If you plan to live in a country or stay there a long time so should learn the language. Learning a second language is also a hallmark of a good education. Not to do so is indeed backward and xenophobic. What I am talking about here is the usefulness of“general” foreign language ability. This is the one that pundits fret about and scold Americans for not doing. Their criticism actually stems from their own ignorance and/or not having thought through the problem.
There are hundreds of languages spoken around the world. Even if you limit yourself to “world languages,” those spoken by lots of people in several countries*, there is too big a choice. I know from experience that learning a language well is very hard and a monumental commitment of time. KEEPING a language fluent is perhaps a greater challenge. You really cannot just collect languages and pull them out when you need them. So if you don’t have a specific plan to go to a region, which language should you learn?
The question is easy for a non-English speaker. English is THE world language. There are You can find English speakers everyplace you go. No other language is like that. We Americans think of Spanish as widespread because we see so many Spanish speaking immigrants and live near Mexico. But try using Spanish anyplace outside the Americas or north of the Pyrenees in Europe. Even in Spain itself you may have trouble in Catalonia if you learned your Spanish in Latin America. Chinese is spoken more people than any other language, but almost all of them live in one place. Fluency in Chinese in non-Chinese communities is uncommon.
BTW - the Chinese are finding their relative lack of English a problem in their international relationships. Generally Engish is the key to economic success and all over the world people are climbing over each other to learn it. There is no more useful language.
The Power of the Network
I could go on. Suffice to say that if you were to be located in a random inhabited place on the earth and asked find somebody within 10 miles whose language you could understand, ONLY English would give you a significant chance of success. You might not find a native English speaker, but you would almost certainly find an English speaker.
The power of English is kind of an open secret. It seems arrogant for Americans or Brits to talk about it openly. Language is tied up with culture and identity, so people have strong emotional interests in pushing their favorite languages. But no matter what people say, the REVEALED preference is clear. And I don't think it will reverse, even if the relative political and economic power of the U.S. and other English speaking countries declines.
The "network effect" is strong and self reinforcing. BTW - the network effect refers to the accumulating advantages of adding more people. If there is only one telephone in the world, it is useless. The more you add, the better it gets. At some point, it becomes almost impossible to NOT join the network. This doesn't mean the network is objectively the best. English is not the "best" language in the world; it is just the most useful.
Switching is Hard
The power of the network is increased when it is difficult to switch and it is very difficult to switch languages. Most people really do not have the talents to become multi-lingual in any meaningful way. I know I certainly do not. And even if you do have the talent for learning languages, if you don't have the opportunity for constant practice, you cannot keep them.
I think many people underestimate the difficulty in REALLY learning a language and/or overestimate their own language skills. If you studied really hard and took four years of French or Spanish in HS, you have probably NOT learned that language. If you took a summer course in Chinese, you have NOT learned that language. Being able to ask direction to the train station or ordering dinner is nice, but unless you can have a nuanced discussion about an important subject, you really are not there.
If you want a rough guide to how well you are speaking a second language, see how long it takes for a native speaker to compliment you on how well you speak their language. Generally, the faster they praise your skills, the worse you are doing. Think about that. If you run into a person with a foreign accent who speaks English well, do you feel the need to compliment him on his English? We only notice if there is a struggle. I have observed this in my work. When I first get to a country, everyone tells me how well I speak the language. I am happy to report that the compliments become less common the longer I am there.
It takes an FSO six months to get to a basic level of an easy language like French or Spanish. That means six months of full-time (i.e. all day, everyday, all week), small group instruction. For a harder language like Polish it is almost a year, two years for languages like Chinese or Arabic. And that gets you only to a MINIMUM professional level. And then if you don't practice, it goes away. Really learning a language is essentially a life-long effort.
Since we probably cannot learn more than one second language well enough to call it learned, or we cannot maintain it even if we manage to learn it, the world is de-facto stuck with choosing one "network language". What will it be?
Much of international English today is exchanged among non-native English speakers. A group of international business people from from Germany, Japan, Brazil and Egypt will almost certainly have to speak English among themselves.
This is a great thing for native English speakers. I remember talking to a Norwegian a long time back. He spoke what seemed to me perfect English, but he told me that Americans were lucky because they were "never foreigners." I didn't understand what he meant, so he explained. Most international conferences featured English, even though most participants were not native speakers. Americans could just jump in. Others had to do so in a second language. I felt his pain. I have spoken other languages fairly well, but it is never the same.
Language Does Not Mean Identity
I understand that some people reading this might take some offense at what I say about English and the others. This is illogical and based on the idea that languages define or "belong" to particular groups and deserve respect or deference as a part of identity. (None of my ancestry is from English speaking countries. Should I have learned Polish or German before English?) That makes language choice a value judgment. It need not be that. You can still study languages and cultures for their intrinsic value (defined as you like). I studied Greek and Latin and feel I benefited greatly from getting to know the the cultures and traditions of the past. But for as a practical matter, we are much better served by English, because that is the one we will have to use now and in the future.
So which language should an American learn if he has no plans to live or work in a particular part of the world? It would be good to get those math skills in order.
* World languages would include Arabic, Chinese, English French, Portuguese & Spanish. We used to include Russian and German too.