The United States may be the only industrialized nation in the world where it's possible to complete secondary and post-secondary education without any foreign language study whatsoever. Although most high schools and colleges/universities sometimes require one or two years of foreign language study for graduation, this small effort won't suffice if our students are to compete successfully in the global marketplace.
It's safe to say that as a country, our foreign language skills are spotty -- if not downright poor. According to a report that's due out in November from the American Council on Teaching Foreign Language (ACTFL), in the 2007- 2008 school year, only 32 percent of students in public secondary schools were enrolled in language classes and only 18.5 percent overall K-12. Foreign language in college proves even worse. According to the 2006 report by the Modern Language Association, only 8.6 percent of students study a foreign language, reduced from 16.5 percent in 1965.
As a comparison, all Chinese students must study English beginning in the third grade. Before this mandate, students were allowed to study English, Korean or Japanese, but had to study one through elementary and secondary schools.
Marty Abbott, the director of education at ACTFL, worries about the lack of preparedness: "We are very concerned that at a time when business leaders are calling for employees that can communicate and understand the cultures of our business partners around the world, the statistics point out that our students are woefully underprepared to meet these demands."
Why are the numbers so dismally low? Why aren't more parents, students and business people advocating for mandatory foreign language?
Budget cuts seem to be a big factor. Many schools are faced with significant cuts and language is at the front of the line. Some people don't think the ROI makes sense: the time commitments required to achieve and retain a high level of skill, weighed against expected use and the widespread perception that foreign language skills are not really necessary -- do not favor language learning in school.
This has got to change. Our education system needs to be radically altered. What we need is nothing short of a revolution -- a cultural language revolution.
We've done it before, and we can do it again. In Oct. 1957, the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik1, the world's first artificial satellite. The Russian aerospace accomplishment surprised U.S. intelligence and launched the space race. It also initiated a shift in American education toward math, science and foreign languages. The National Defense Education Act of 1958, sponsored by the U.S. Dept of Defense, funneled $1 billion into elementary school curricula. Teaching Russian was viewed as critical to national defense.
Today's Sputnik is globalization with the competition coming from the rising super economies of China, India, Brazil, Mexico and the new Russia. At stake is our ability to compete successfully in the raw global arena, and one of the deciding factors will be Americans' ability to speak strategic foreign languages. So far, the primary thrust has been in learning Mandarin: U.S. student enrollment in Chinese language courses since 2000 is up from 5,000 to 50,000. Not surprisingly, a second focus since Sept. 11 has been Arabic.
Fifty years ago, we needed language skills to keep tabs on our competitors. Today we need these skills to keep pace with them.
Thankfully there are language advocates across America and their voices are getting louder and stronger. The ACTFL, a national, non-profit organization dedicated to improving and expanding the teaching and learning of all languages at all levels of instruction, is at the heart of the effort. They have a call out to support U.S. Congressmen Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Paul Tonko's (D-NY) sponsorship of HR 6036, which will revamp national, state and local levels for language education.
The legislation is a great place to start, but we also need to revolutionize the way we -- as parents, as students, as Americans -- think about foreign language. Foreign language should be a "must-have," an integral component of a great education in the U.S. Our children should graduate high school bilingual, at least, and perhaps with a strong working knowledge of a third language.
All is not lost
Glastonbury is a historic Connecticut River Valley town that dates back to the late 1600s and is considered a national leader in language learning in the public school system. Sputnik spawned its language program, which has included teaching the Russian language for more than 50 years. Now mandatory Spanish begins in first grade; a second elective language can be added in seventh, and a third in high school. Of graduating seniors, 95 percent have received the full 12 years of foreign language instruction, and are proficient enough to achieve bilingual fluency in college or university. This far exceeds the national average and gives Glastonbury High School a significantly stronger language program than most prestigious private schools.
Although this one shining jewel is not the norm, it can set the example for other schools. But in order to enact a massive overhaul within the education system, all sectors of society must participate.
Businesses, for example, must continue to embrace international operations through expansion and operations abroad, but simultaneously through language and cultural acquisition. The more companies value a cross-cultural workforce, the greater likelihood our school system will produce.
Universities and colleges must build collaborative programs with K-12 so that the foundation for learning language is strong and they can realistically require the new, better prepared students to achieve foreign language proficiency in order to receive a bachelor's degree.
The U.S. government must be unrelenting in its drive to increase the number of Americans mastering critical languages -- 70 as listed by the U.S. National Security Education Program -- and the teachers and resources for K-16 schools in order to achieve its objectives.
STARTALK has instituted intensive summer language sessions across the country since 2007. This past summer, 78 programs in towns from California to Connecticut taught one or more of the following critical languages: Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Persian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu. In fact, my twin daughters have participated in the STARTALK Chinese program in Glastonbury, Conn., for the past several years.
These are just a few of the many programs that recognize the importance of foreign language learning for both security and global competitiveness. Moreover, many of these programs offer career opportunities to students involved in the programs, thus becoming more than educational as they evolve into networking channels and careers.
And yet, it's even more than language skills. Multi-lingual people agree that language proficiency means more than just being able to read, write and speak. It also includes cultural knowledge. By incorporating culture into the foreign language curriculum, students receive an enhanced level of sociological, political and historical context.
Arguably, bold and innovative new methods of incorporating foreign languages into the fabric of our education system are needed now more than ever. Cultural knowledge and understanding (gestures, choice of vocabulary) need to be married to actual language acquisition in a systematic way. School districts, colleges, universities, local and federal governments, business people and parents must work together to promote enhanced language proficiency. Our children's future -- and our country's -- depends on it.