I find it interesting that most schools start students young in middle school and even as early as kindergarten. In the US its rare to see language classes available before high school, and at that its typically only 2 years of language for your entire student duration, including college. It makes us look quite ignorant if you ask me :P
People whose mother tongue is English will never truly understand I guess. In today's world English is essential if you wish to go anywhere beyond the limits of just your direct vicinity. And yes, at some point you will realize that you may not have the potential to be a "big shot" but if you start learning another language by the time that you think you might have what it takes it's already too late. The same applies to China, they start learning early because learning a language gets harder the older you get. Everyone gets educated under the assumption they will be at the top. Now, this of course is a paradox since not everyone can be at the top, so a lot of this time "goes to waste". But again, you can't be the one quitting it because then you're setting yourself up for failure from the get-go. It's fascinating really, I guess you could use game theory to explain all this.
In the Netherlands we all start learning English at a young age as well, although we also have to learn German and French because they're neighboring countries that are bigger than us. Truth told since the Netherlands is pretty small pretty much any country is bigger...
Anyway, it's just one of those things. People from the UK/USA learn other languages just because they think it's interesting or "cool" to speak another language, never (or at least rarely) because it's necessary or forced upon them by the system which seeks to prepare everyone for a future in which you might have to use it. I guess most people in the Netherlands don't really need to speak English at work (or at least not on a daily basis) but it's still frowned upon if you cannot speak at least two languages.
Scientifically speaking, from a cognitive viewpoint language acquisition ability dips off significantly after childhood. So kindergarten is a great place to start. However I suppose the real point we are driving at is the fact that the US has a global outreach and its hegemony is felt world wide. Most international businesses must be intertwined with US enterprises it seems. There really is no necessity for me to learn another language unless I need to move overseas or I find myself in a firm that requires me to be an effective comminicator with a foreign entity. I could probably go through my whole life without knowing a single word outside of English and be very successful (because I am a science major after all). As ignorant as that may seem, it's the sad truth. I am glad that we require at least some language schooling. I think all Americans should find a way to culture themselves and see the world around them
The civil and business friendly liberal laws of the UK and the US have generated enormous wealth. The first Industrial Revolution began in the UK and the Second and presumably the Third Industrial Revolution began in the US. Even during the Age of Imperialsim, it was the UK that surpassed all other nations to fuel its Industrial Revolution. English is the language of captialism, and capitalism is the only economic system that works. It can be brutal, unjust and downright unforgiving, but it gives everyone a chance to better their place in the world. Great wealth still flows out of the economic centers of London and New York City.
Deng Xiao Ping knew that if China were to pass through the threshold of modernity, China had to abandon the old economic principles of the past. The command economic model could never work in a country so vast and large with a 1980 population of 98 million. So, it was decided that the a mixed economy would generate China's future wealth and English would be taught at the elementary level to ready future leaders of business "to subdue the enemy without fighting." Today, China exports their goods around the world, and it has invested billions of dollars in the US, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In 2030 it is expected that China will surpass the US as the number one economy in the world.
As far as Americans "looking ignorant," I think not. We are society of free thinkers and embrace cultural diffusion faster than any other place in the world. More and more Americans now realize that foreign language skills broaden their economic prospects. We live in a world that has no boundaries, no time restraints. The World Wide Web. which was developed in the US has ushered in an era of endless international economic development. Blake, you have embraced the future by joining italki. Think large, dream big, free your mind and "your *** will follow."
English is the international language, particularly in science and business.
If you don't learn it you restrict yourself basically to opportunities within your own country, or a country where your native language is spoken. Granted, China has the world's largest population but Mandarin is restricted in its usage outside of China. As a scientist you should know that all the major scientific publications are in English, and the working language in labs across the world is often English too. If you want to be successful in science or business, realistically you have to know English as the the use of English isn't just restricted to the countries where it is the first language.
Two examples that I can think of. I have friends who work in research laboratories in both Germany and Austria and the working language within their laboratory is English, not German. The majority of them are not native speakers but still English is the common language that they all share. Also, my friend's girlfriend works for Exxon Mobil in Budapest, the majority of the workforce are Hungarian and yet most of the time she speaks in English.
@HLRN is right, native speakers of English won't ever understand what it is like. Attitudes towards learning foreign languages in the UK are really poor, because people think that other countries learn English so what's the point. It's exactly your point Blake, probably 99% of English speakers could quite happily not learn a single word of another foreign language and still not be restricted with what they wanted to achieve in their life as we have the advantage of being native speakers of the world's international language.