Here’s how America can solve its language education problem

In January 2019, the Modern Language Association made a surprising announcement in the Chronicle of Higher Education: From 2013 to 2016, the United States cut the budgets of over 650 foreign language programs to increase STEM funding (Falcon Media, 2019). French was impacted the most, losing over 125 programs, followed by Spanish, German and Italian, losing 118, 86 and 56 programs, respectively (The New York Times, 2019). 

According to a recent study, only 20 percent of K-12 students in the United States study a foreign language, whereas 92 percent of European K-12 students are multilingual (Pew Research Center, 2018). Moreover, only 10 states and Washington, D.C. make foreign language education a mandatory graduation requirement (The New York Times, 2021). 

This decline in foreign language education will have devastating effects on future generations, as they risk being monolingual in an increasingly multilingual world. Being fluent in a foreign language has many cognitive and social benefits; for example, memory is tested as an individual tries to remember new words and communication with non-English speaking coworkers or peers can improve performance in academic and career paths. Those who do not voluntarily choose to learn a foreign language are at risk for less cognitive development and cultural isolation (Middlebury Language Schools, 2020). Since options for learning a foreign language in schools are dwindling, interest sharply declined. In fact, the amount of students enrolled in college-level foreign language classes dropped by 9.2 percent over three years (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018).

According to The Chronicle, the recent slashing of foreign language education budgets are likely a result of the 2008 economic recession which impacted foreign language departments the most out of various humanities programs in schools. As the programs shrank, so did the amount of qualified teachers (ACTFL, 2019). For over a decade, the American education system suffered this vicious cycle.

Multilingualism is an essential skill. In fact, employees who are fluent in more than one language create greater economic activity. In Canada, where English and French are the two predominant languages, having the ability to trade goods and services in both languages adds the equivalent of $3.3 billion American dollars to the country’s economy (Virtual Writing Tutor, 2018). Many educators and parents are trying to rethink the manner in which language is taught in schools and calling for expanded access to foreign language education (Baylor University, 2020). Regarding primary to secondary education, some teachers are moving toward a holistic approach to language education based on the notion that any language should be taught in its everyday use (The New York Times, 2019). Some universities restructured their foreign language courses to emphasize the ability to work and socialize across languages, occasionally offering dual degrees where language education is directly tied to students’ fields of study (The New York Times, 2019). For example, Georgia Tech incorporated programs aiming to develop new language skills that allow students to work more effectively in international companies (Georgia Tech, 2018). In addition, the University of Rhode Island offers a program combining a foreign language degree with an engineering degree. Such programs will create cross-cultural competence in all students who participate, adding to the global economy and the understanding of various cultures (The New York Times, 2019).

In various public schools, some parents advocate for dual-language immersion programs that foster fluency for non-English speaking students while simultaneously allowing English-speaking students to learn a new language. The school board in Anchorage, Alaska approved a French dual-language program after multiple parents signed a petition (Anchorage Daily News, 2019). In New York City, the 2019-2020 school curriculum included 107 dual-language programs, including French, Haitian-Creole, Hebrew and Japanese pre-K programs (nyc.gov, 2019). The state of Utah aims to diversify its population by adding dual-language programs for English speakers. Since the state’s International Education Initiative became law in 2008, its public schools now offer over 200 immersion programs.

Overseas, the French government plays a major role in supporting French language programs throughout the United States. Learning French offers professional potential and access to the vastly expanding Francophone community, projected to increase from roughly 300 million to 700 million by 2050 (French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, 2014). Benedicte de Montalur, the cultural counselor of the French embassy, spearheaded the development of the French Dual Language Fund, which supports bilingual programs in American public schools (The New York Times, 2019). The process of incorporating such a program will vary between the states, but school districts’ commitment to the program will be crucial for its development. School boards should also consider the proximity of certain languages to the state; for example, more Spanish programs should be offered on the West Coast due to its proximity to Mexico.

If Americans want to actively participate in a multilingual world, immersion programs and multicultural education are vital. The government needs to increase spending on language education and the education of qualified teachers. More states must enforce foreign language requirements. Colleges and universities have to recognize the importance of their language programs. In addition, more parents, students and teachers need to advocate for better language programs. If successful, such initiatives will make Americans comparable to 43 percent of their national counterparts in terms of multilingualism.

One Comment

  1. JOBS & LANGUAGE SKILLS – Today’s jobs report (12/3/21) shows a disappointing 210,000 new jobs, but the same survey shows an encouraging increase in percentage of Americans with a job.

    Even though they are certainly not all brand new jobs, today there are 352,508 jobs available for candidates with bilingual skills
; 437,780 jobs for candidates with some skills in one of the 10 most taught foreign languages. In the U.S., we don’t have the candidates to fill these jobs.

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