WHEN I ENTERED COLLEGE a decade ago, the longest-running battle on my campus was not over Vietnam or ROTC, but over the foreign language requirement. A new president had just taken office, and in one of his first official acts, he had announced that in order to graduate, every student would have to be minimally proficient in a foreign language. To most of us, this was an appalling notion. Why, we asked, should we have to bother with language courses? What good would they ever do us? I no longer remember who finally won that battle, but given the wisdom of hindsight, I certainly know who was right. It wasn't us.

As Paul Simon points out in this alarming little tome, the arguments we used then were hardly novel: America has always been a rigorously monolingual country. We approach language as just another school subject, to be forgotten once the final exam is over; something that may be fine for the fellow who wants to read Proust in the original, but which has little to do with the business of getting on in the world.

The Tongue-Tied American is an attempt to explain why that attitude is wrong. Simon, a liberal congressman from Illinois, has become, in his six years in the House, somewhat obsessed with America's language indifference. He believes, rightly, that our failure to learn other languages is not only short-sighted, but genuinely harmful; he makes a compelling case that lanuage skills are not only for readers of Proust, but for businessmen, journalists, government officials and the rest of us who must cope in an increasingly interconnected world. And while there is much that is wrong with this book -- it is too often careless in its writing and analysis, for example, and it is also egregiously padded -- Simon deserves credit for having highlighted a serious national problem. He has written a convincing call to arms.

First, the grim facts: according to Simon, in 1976 less than 18 percent of the nation's high-schoolers studied a language; and in the public schools, less than four percent are now taking more than two years of a language. Once you get away from the relatively popular romance languages, the situation becomes even worse: In the entire country, Simon writes, there are "no students of the Albanian language . . . 31 of Rumanian . . . four of Bulgarian . . . and four of Burmese." What makes the whole matter truly pathetic is that of those who do specialize in languages, many finish their training unable to conduct even simple conversations in their chosen language. The reason for this, Simon claims, is that more often than not the language teacher themselves don't have adequate skills. He trots out a numbing array of statistics and examples to support his contention that, in the matter of foreign languages, America is simply incompetent.

But does it really matter? Simon is at his polemical best in explaining that it does matter -- a great deal. Although English remains the world's predominant language, we can no longer expect other nations to adapt to our linguistic wishes. Indeed, the bulk of the book is devoted to the myriad ways that we hurt ourselves by not taking language more seriously.

For example, nowhere should the need for foreign language ability be more self-evident than in the foreign service, yet time and again, foreign service officers have been sent abroad without the necessary language skills. Most recently, this failing became newsworthy when a Russian soldier rushed into the American embassy in Afghanistan, claiming he wanted to defect. Although Afghanistan has been a client state of Russia for some time (since well before the actual invasion), our embassy did not have a single Russian speaker on the premises who could communicate with the soldier. We had to borrow one from another embassy. Prior to that, we could read in the newspapers about the scarcity of Farsi speakers in the American embassy in Iran, even as the revolution was gaining steam. As a consequence, our officials had to depend on the Shah and his associates for information. In dozens of other places the situation is at least as bad. "When we have to deal with Bangladesh," writes Simon, "it is so much easier to deal with the government and business leaders, the elite. They speak English. They're clean. They're educated. They're like us." As a result, in too many cases, what a foreign service political officer is learning about a country is what the country's elite want to tell him, which may be at considerable variance with the facts.

There was also a time when American industry was so dominant and powerful that it didn't have to worry much about promoting exports. Those days are obviously gone for good. Yet even as our trade deficit grows, and as businessmen realize the importance of pushing export trade, they still seem unwilling to spend any length of time or money or energy on teaching their employees a foreign language. But the rest of the world is simply no longer willing to deal with American business exclusively in English.

"Trade is a social act," John Stuart Mills wrote in 1859, and that is as true today as it was then. One reason (among others) the Japanese have been so successful in the U.S. is that they have taken time to learn our language, and to understand our country. Thus they have been able to adapt their products to our needs, and explain them to us in our language. If we expect to compete with them, we have to begin to do the same. On this point, Simon is convincing.

Unfortunately, he is much less persuasive when he proposes his remedies to the problem. He offers the classic government solution -- more federal programs, more federal dollars, more federal help for school districts and universities that want to promote language training. He would like to see foreign language courses become mandatory in American high schools and colleges, for example, and he believes the federal government is the best agent to bring about that kind of change by offering financial incentives to school districts.

He could not be more wrong. For what Simon has almost totally overlooked are the important cultural reasons that people in other countries learn languages. Yes, it is true, as he writes, that every child in France must take a language (invariably English) for at least four years, starting in sixth grade. But it is also true that the French understand instinctively the need for language; after all, they don't have to travel very far to see how necessary it is. In addition, being conversant in a language, especially English, has a great deal of snob value -- the French are so proud to be fluent and love to show it off. Finally, although American cultural dominance in the world is declining, there is still much about our culture that people in other countries envy. To take but one simple example: rock music. The language of rock is English. The French kid who wants to be able to understand the lyrics on his latest album simply has to be conversant in English. It is hard to overstate how enormous an incentive something like this is: but clearly, in the scheme of things it is far more important than any number of mandatory classes.

So Simon's plea for federal aid, especially at a time when we have begun to understand that there are limits to what federal aid can accomplish, ends up soudning like just so much wishful thinking. Federal money won't make Americans more interested in language. It won't supply the necessary cultural incentives. We'll have to do that ourselves.