Across the globe, linguistically heterogeneous populations increasingly define school systems at the same time that developing the ability to communicate cross-culturally is becoming essential for internationalized economies. While these trends seem complimentary, they often appear in paradoxical opposition as represented in the content and execution of nationwide education policies. Given the differing geopolitical contexts within which school systems function, wide variation exists with regard to how policymakers address the challenges of providing language education, including how they frame goals and design programs to align with those goals. Here we present a cross-continental examination of this variation, which reveals parallel tensions among aims for integrating immigrant populations, closing historic achievement gaps, fostering intercultural understanding, and developing multilingual competencies. To consider implications of such paradoxes and parallels in policy foundations, we compare language education in the US and in the EU, focusing on the Netherlands as an illustrative case study.