The demand for foreign language learning is higher in America than it has been since the sixties. So, why isn’t the educational system able to meet it?
Though demand is high, foreign language learning has never been harder as an American. With the public education budget constantly under the knife, foreign language learning programs are disappearing fast from public schools.
When there isn’t enough money in the educational budget, language gets the ax right after the arts--and the arts have all but vanished from the curriculum already.
Donald Trump’s proposed budget, which has not yet been approved, would cut $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives, delivering an even deeper blow to foreign language learning for K-12 students.
What does America’s foreign language deficit mean for our future? How will a nation of monolinguals get by in a global world? Is it too late to save foreign language learning in America?
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The Economic Implications of Language Illiteracy
Over half of Europeans can converse in a second language. In the United States, however, three quarters of the population only speak one.
English is still the lingua franca of international commerce. In Europe, the second language by overwhelming popularity is English, except in the UK, where it’s French. But if francophone Africa gains economic independence over the next few decades, we could see the return of French.
Nevertheless, the importance of European languages has been eclipsed by rising economic powers in East, South, and Southeast Asia.
Those Americans who are able study a second language are still largely learning European languages instead of, for example, Bengali. The reasons for learning a language are not always economical.
But such shortsighted Eurocentrism could mean that even bilingual American graduates are poorly equipped to succeed in the theater of global business.
The near future of global commerce places importance upon learning languages like Vietnamese, Indonesian, Bengali, and of course Mandarin.
The absence of such foreign language learning programs in American schools, along with the slashing of established Romance and Germanic language programs, makes America’s economic future look pretty vulnerable.
Former US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who served under the Obama administration, put it quite succinctly when he said: “To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages.”
The Academic Benefits of Foreign Language Learning
Foreign language learning isn’t just good business sense. It’s important to academic performance as well.
There’s evidence that foreign language learning, especially when it begins early, improves cognitive and developmental abilities. Research supports a correlation between foreign language learning and the following:
- General intelligence
- Meta-linguistic skills
- Memory skills
- Problem solving
- Attention control on cognitive tasks
- Improved verbal and spatial abilities
- The offset of age-related cognitive losses
Foreign language learning also specifically benefits students in middle and high school. It correlates with the following:
- Higher results on standardized testing, including SAT and ACT scores
- More developed reading abilities
- Increased linguistic awareness
- Better ability to hypothesize in science
- Development of print awareness
- Higher academic performance when the student goes on to college
Furthermore, foreign language learning has these important qualities:
- It benefits all students
- Language learners transfer skills from one language to another
- Learners develop a more positive attitude toward speakers of the target language
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The Effect of America’s Foreign Language Deficit on International Relations
It used to be the standard that in order to get into college you needed to take some high school language classes. But in recent years, higher education institutions have relaxed their requirements on language study as a prerequisite to admission.
Many universities, like Cornell, have phased out courses in less popular languages. Although, in some cases, they have made efforts to replace them with video conferencing courses so rare foreign languages remain accessible to students who wish to seek them out.
If our higher education system is not producing bi- and multilingual graduates, where are we going to find diplomats and policy makers to help repair and maintain America’s foreign relations?
Where will we get intelligence specialists to keep our elected officials informed, to say nothing of language teachers to teach the next generation of diplomats, policy makers, intelligence specialists and officials? How can we expect to hold any position on the international stage without foreign language learning?
But of course, we can’t produce multilingual graduates and professionals without teachers. And we won’t have the teachers without the budget for them. If the budget goes, and language programs go, so does our global position.
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The Future of Foreign Language Learning in America
We can no longer treat foreign language learning as an educational side dish. Foreign language learning is uniquely intertwined with all academic disciplines, and enhances the performance of the learner whatever their focus.
America’s foreign language deficit could be our canary in the coal mine. We need to ensure that we are boosting, not slashing, foreign language learning programs in our schools.
Funding for foreign language learning should be a priority at the state and federal levels, and emphasis on its importance should be readopted by academia.
It’s not just a matter of fulfilling an elective credit. It’s the future of our country.