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America’s Foreign Language Crisis

“To prosper economically and improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak, and understand other languages. Unfortunately, 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.” – U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 2010.

As America’s cultural diversity continues to expand, the interest for learning new languages in our education system (including Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Arabic) is in great demand. Yet, the recent stats of Americans studying another language are far from impressive. American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently released a report on foreign language learning in America and compared it to other parts of the world.

While more than 65 million U.S residents speak a language other than English at home, that number only represents 20.7 percent of the total population, and only a fraction of this cohort is considered proficient in reading, writing, and speaking a second language.

Unlike in Europe, approximately 66 percent of all European adults report having knowledge of more than one language. Furthermore, another shocking disadvantage of America’s investment in foreign language instruction is at least 44 states report a shortage of qualified K-12 language or bilingual teachers for the 2016-2017 school year; more states report a shortage in languages than any other subject.

Should America place greater emphasis on their foreign language investment? Absolutely! If America wants to be both a serious global competitor and diplomatic partner to the world, then there needs to be a deeper commitment and better prioritization of foreign language instruction.

Nancy Rhodes, Senior Foreign Language Education Consultant for the Center for Applied Linguistics, discussed that “there are definitely more jobs globally that require language and cross-cultural skills to the point where U.S universities need to prepare globally competent graduates and are starting to offer more tailored language classes in preparation for needs in the workforce.” Along with strengthening the workforce and preparing young adults who might live and work abroad, learning foreign languages has other benefits.

Jonathan Fanton, President of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, pointed out that “the long-term benefits of children learning an additional language (along with English) includes cognitive benefits, important habits of mind, and new and valuable perspectives on the world.”

Tracy Kaufman, a nonprofit professional based in New York, spent nearly a decade of her adult life learning three incredibly complex languages (French, Russian, and Korean). For someone who came from a family of a history teacher and is completely fascinated with world history and geography, learning languages in her eyes “are some of the most direct paths into those additional cultural lenses.” Currently serving as the Community Outreach Manager at the Foundation Center, foreign languages are significant in her role. She loves how her French language skills have come in handy to visitors, especially where even “older immigrants who visit, in particular, tend to have more limited English skills and I’ve worked with many who come from primarily French-speaking African countries, or Haiti, and they appreciate having someone nearby who can communicate with them in the tongue which they’re most comfortable.”

Foreign languages influence every aspect of American life, including economic growth, cultural diplomacy, productivity of future generations, and greater fulfillment.

Prioritizing foreign languages in America’s education system will not only bridge the on-going cultural gap and language barrier but also show the rest of the world how much we embrace and value every culture that comes through our door!

By: Francis Asprec

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