The United States is a multi-ethnic and multilingual country although the study of foreign languages is not given priority. Right now, the lack of official initiatives to promote and prioritize foreign language study puts the nation at a disadvantage, especially since businesses are going global and people with foreign language skills are in high demand.
At this point, the U.S. is comparable to the United Kingdom. In both countries, the lack of skills in foreign languages is already a pressing matter.
A decline in foreign language learning
In the United States, the dominant language is English and while the economy of the world is progressively global, the study of foreign languages by American students continues to decline. It is seen as a backward slide. It can later lead to an inability of the country to vie economically.
Studies looked into the state of language learning in the United States. One report was prepared by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, based on a Congressional request. The American Councils made the other report for International Education.
In the study submitted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the report said there was a decline in the middle schools that offer foreign language courses. In 1977, about 75% of middle schools offered programs for foreign language learning. In 2008, the number went down to 58%. At the elementary school level, the numbers went down from 31% to 25% for the same period. More private elementary schools (50%) offered foreign language learning programs, compared to public elementary schools, where only 15% provided language programs.
The report of the American Councils for International Education, entitled The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report released in 2017 showed that 20% of the school-age population was enrolled in foreign language programs. On the state level, 11 U.S. states include foreign language as a graduation requirement; 24 states offer different options, including foreign language, in order to graduate, while 16 states did not include foreign language as part of their graduation requirements.
The declining number of students learning a foreign language increases the breach in proficiency between many countries and the United States. According to the report, only about 20% of the adults in the U.S. knows another language other than English, whereas, in the European Union, about two-thirds of the region’s total adult population speaks two or more languages. In the U.S. around 200,000 students are studying Chinese while in China approximately 300 to 400 million students are English language learners. Only a small number of American students are studying languages that are vital to U.S. commerce or national security, such as Russian, Korean and Arabic.
According to the report of the American Councils for International Education, 46% of the language programs in high school go to Spanish, followed by French at 21%. The next three languages are German (8.71%), Latin (8.51%) and Chinese (6.43%).
One thing that seems to be forgotten is the fact that communicating in languages aside from English extends the overall learning skills of students, mainly if those taking up the foreign languages are young children, according to researchers and educators.
The survey also stated that the Americans’ lack of foreign language skills is considered an “emergency” in the foreign language. It is seen as a risk to the U. S economy and the country’s foreign policy.
Lack of a national mandate
Three years ago, a report from Pew Research said that the U.S. lacks a national mandate to enforce foreign language study among American students. In the EU, about 224 countries require students in high school to study their native languages along with other languages for a minimum of one year.
The report suggests that the country falls behind in the growth of a critical skill for the 21st century. It also suggests that due to this, the U.S. faces the risk of missing out on non-English conversations.
Effect of the lack of foreign language skills in humanitarian efforts
NAFSA: The Association of International Educators’ CEO, Esther Brimmer said that the lack of foreign language skills of Americans also affects humanitarian services since most of the crises occur in places where English is scarcely spoken. International aid groups and U.S. diplomats should be able to speak non-Western languages since critical situations often take place in areas where Persian, Arabic and Chinese are the main languages spoken. The U.S. Defense Department concurs with this; the lack of foreign language speaking skills can affect the country’s security. Dr. Michael Nugent, the Director of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office of the Pentagon, said that U.S. state, defense and other government agency officials stationed outside the United States should understand the region’s language/s and the culture of the locale where they are assigned.
According to Dr. Nugent, acceptance into and rising through the ranks in the U.S. military and foreign service does not require the ability to speak a second language, particularly the critical languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Hindi, Bangla and Azerbaijani. He added that the challenges right now are the lack of resources and ineffective foreign language teaching methods. There has been a ‘state of emergency’ for foreign languages for about 10 or 15 years, according to Dr. Nugent.
Several issues contribute to the lack of foreign language skills among American students. Nearly all the states in the U.S. face foreign language teacher shortage. American parents, especially those with children in the elementary grades demand the inclusion of foreign language programs in the school curricula. However, the parents want this to happen because they believe that it equates to academic success. The lack of information on how a foreign language proficiency can boost their children’s chances for better opportunities for employment later.
The previous reports said that the focus on the study of foreign languages in the United States is sporadic. The country only concentrates on language learning when there is a great need. An example of this is the campaign to boost the learning of the Russian language during the Cold War. Another time when learning foreign languages was encouraged, especially the languages spoken in the Middle East was after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
A better strategy to encourage foreign language learning
Based on the research results and the examples above, there is a clear indication that the approach to language learning needs a better strategy. The suggestion is to improve access of students and other learners to various languages at all age levels, socioeconomic background and ethnicity. The education system should treat language learning like it does other subjects like math and science that requires competency. The system should ensure that the students would reach a functional level of proficiency. Moreover, there should be national funding and promotion.
Asia Society’s vice president for education, Vivien Stewart, another reason why the United States trails against international counterparts regarding foreign language learning is the timing of the introduction of language learning in American schools. She said that in many countries, language study starts in elementary school, giving students more time to learn the language. In the U.S. foreign language education begins in high school and students are only required to study a language for a year, which is not enough to develop proficiency and fluency.
Almost all the top 25 industrialized nations start language programs at K-5 level. In the U.S. students begin to learn a foreign language when they are around 14 years of age. In Europe, 21 countries require a nine-year foreign language study for their students.
Effect of immigration
Immigration in the United States is still the subject of many debates. The talks about immigration include language, primarily due to the increasing number of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Many people are debating the issue of whether Spanish is going to be the dominant language in the United States.
It’s a widespread perception as census figures show that the second most dominant language in the U.S. is Spanish. About 48.6 million people in the country speak Spanish. The number includes undocumented immigrants who speak Spanish and other immigrants who are non-Latinos but speak Spanish in their homes.
Based on the projection of the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Spanish speakers is likely to increase to 119 million in 2060, which is a growth of 115%.
Is the U.S. still monolingual?
The number of Spanish speakers in the United States means that professional service providers are facing more people who speak Spanish as their first language. Likewise, other immigrants who come to the country speak only their language. Many of them are unable to speak English, preventing them from accessing essential services.
Thus it is imperative that these providers learn Spanish and other languages to effectively serve their community residents or use the services of professional translators and interpreters to facilitate proper communication and promote understanding.
It is quite an alarming situation if you only look at the immigration figures and the number of people speaking Spanish in the U.S. because the trend seems to indicate that English will eventually lose out to Spanish.
However, there is a phenomenon called ‘three-generation pattern.’ While the initial group of immigrants only speaks Spanish (the first generation), the second generation is likely to shift between Spanish and English, because of the need to learn English for school and work, so they are bilingual. In most cases, the third generation will be monolingual and speak only English as they are born and educated in the United States and are in touch with the English language at a very early age.
The same is true with other languages. Many immigrants are required to take English language courses. While they may still speak their native languages at home, they have to speak English in school and at work. Eventually, due to lack of use and fellow speakers to talk with, they shift to English, for convenience and community acceptance.
Americans should learn foreign languages
But for global progress, national security and economic stability, it is critical for Americans to learn foreign languages. It’s a reality that cannot be ignored.
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