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World Language

The State of World Language Education in America

Businesses, government, and others in America believe that learning a second world language is critically important in today’s world. Unfortunately that is not the trend in U.S. education. “To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared in 2010, “Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.” Unfortunately, Duncan pointed out, only 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language. It is ironic that in 1915, Americans were teaching foreign languages and learning foreign languages about the same level as Europeans were, but by the 1920s that ended as America became staunchly isolationist.

In a 2012 Forbes Magazine article, America’s Foreign Language Deficit, David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler wrote,

“More and more students and their parents understand the need to communicate with friends and foes in other countries, and not just on our terms. Demand for and enrollment in foreign language courses is at its highest level since 1968. At public K-12 schools, course enrollment in 2007-2008 reached 8.9 million individuals, about 18.5 percent of all students; between 1995 and 2009, it increased 47.8 percent at colleges and universities.

At the same time, however, schools at every level are balancing their budgets and offsetting reductions in government allocations by cutting their offerings and/or eliminating foreign language requirements.

“Consider this:

  • The percentage of public and private elementary schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 31 to 25 percent from 1997 to 2008.
  • Instruction in public elementary schools dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent, with rural districts hit the hardest.
  • The percentage of all middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 75 to 58 percent.
  • The percentage of high schools offering some foreign language courses remained about the same, at 91 percent.
  • About 25 percent of elementary schools and 30 percent of middle schools report a shortage of qualified foreign language teachers.
  • In 2009-2010, only 50.7 percent of higher education institutions required foreign language study for a baccalaureate, down from 67.5 percent in 1994-1995. And many colleges and universities, including Cornell, have reduced or eliminated instructional offerings in ‘less popular’ languages.

“We should care – a lot – about our foreign language deficit. We need diplomats, intelligence and foreign policy experts, politicians, military leaders, business leaders, scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, historians, artists, and writers who are proficient in languages other than English. And we need them to read and speak less commonly taught languages (for which funding has recently been cut by the federal government) that are essential to our strategic and economic interests, such as Farsi, Bengali, Vietnamese, Burmese and Indonesian.”

In 2011, Russell Berman wrote,

“There is a language crisis in the United States, and we should take a close look and be frank about it. Our language crisis is not the rich diversity of languages spoken in some schools (even if a wide range of languages in a single classroom may in fact pose real challenges to K–12 educators). The language crisis does not reside in the reality of the many languages spoken in homes and at work across the United States. … Nor is the language crisis the vigorous stream of other languages that new Americans bring into the country through immigration.

“On the contrary, the real language crisis is the exceptionally low level of second-language skills that Americans display. The sad truth is that anyone born into an English-speaking family in the United States will have a difficult time finding a path to fluency in another language. Despite the pressures and opportunities of globalization, we are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates.”

Global Village knows that second language literacy is essential for success in the 21st century and we are committed to providing our students that competitive advantage.

In 2015, Clayton Lewis wrote,

“…Americans may be reverting to a belief in ‘English language exceptionalism.’ Yes, English is the accepted lingua franca of international business and U.S. students may therefore feel another language is unnecessary. Perhaps if their only competitors in the global job market were other monolingual Americans, there would be no cause for concern. But the global job market will include a very crowded field of well-educated graduates from Europe, China, Mexico and many other countries who have mastered English on top of their mother tongue. The reality of the 21st century job market is that Americans will be competing for a job where, with other competencies being equal, they will be compared to a multilingual candidate.”

Studying a second world language for at least one year is compulsory in more than 20 European countries. In most European countries, students begin studying their first world language as a compulsory school subject between the ages of 6 and 9, and a second world language later with the goal of becoming trilingual (i.e., the mother tongue, plus two world languages). In China, approximately 300 million people are learning English.