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U.S. Students Hurting in Foreign Languages

• May 17, 2010 • 5:00 AM

American public education continues to give short shrift to serious teaching of foreign languages, especially those harder tongues that promise to be prominent in the future.

All you need to know about the study of foreign languages in the United States is that many more middle and high school students are studying the dead language spoken by Caesar and Nero than such critically important tongues as Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Farsi, Japanese, Russian and Urdu combined.

“Things cannot get worse. We are at the bottom of the barrel now” in terms of foreign language study in America’s schools, says Nancy Rhodes of the Center for Applied Linguistics, which surveys language study in the nation’s schools every 10 years.

The center’s most recent report shows a decrease in the last decade in school language programs, which Rhodes says can be attributed to “budget cuts, and foreign languages are among the first things that get cut. They are seen as something that’s not a necessity. And another reason is the No Child Left Behind legislation — about a third of our schools report they have been negatively affected because of the focus on math and reading scores.”

Unlike Europe, where more than 90 percent of children begin learning English in elementary school, and several countries mandate the teaching of two foreign languages in upper secondary school, America has never placed a premium on teaching foreign languages. Less than one-third of American elementary schools offer foreign language courses, and less than half of all middle and high school students are enrolled in such classes, the majority studying Spanish.

Key reasons for this disparity include geography and Americans’ sense of cultural chauvinism.

“We have never had a compelling reason to interact with the rest of the world,” says Marty Abbott of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “We have been isolated geographically, and haven’t had that urgency [to learn other languages] that Europeans have had.”

“[Other] countries recognize that language is a tool for economic competitiveness and national security, so they have mandatory language programs,” says Shuhan Wang of the National Foreign Language Center. “We have xenophobia and are always trying to use English as a badge of national identity and expression,” but because English is perceived as a global language, “it becomes a two-edged sword. People understand us, but we don’t comprehend them. We are losing so much and are not aware of it.”

There is also a feeling, much too common in the United States, that language education is not for everyone, and as Abbott says, it’s “just not normal.” And for a long time in the U.S., the teaching of languages was more of an academic exercise, a rote recitation of grammatical rules, separate from the goal of actually going out and speaking to someone.

Yet the picture is not totally bleak. Even though, for example, Chinese and Arabic are still taught in only a fraction of America’s schools — approximately 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively — their growth has been statistically significant over the past 10 years.

“There are many more Arabic programs in K-12,” says Karin Ryding of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic, “but there is not any official survey of how many schools are teaching Arabic and to what extent.” Surveys also fail catch how many students may study languages through their religious or cultural institutions.

Ryding adds that a number of factors have held back Arabic education in the past. The alphabet is different, and teachers have generally emerged from the Arab-American community, many of them not particularly experienced. There is also no certification system for teachers of Arabic, and curriculum materials are lacking. Plus, Ryding says, “there is also an issue with Arab culture: Most Americans don’t understand it; they consider it exotic.”

Some of the same issues affect Chinese (Mandarin) language study. “It is a non-Roman alphabet, and that adds linguistic distance,” says Wang. “It’s also a cultural distance.”

Yet because of China’s increasing economic clout, more and more schools are teaching the language. Part of this has been spurred by Hanban, a Chinese government-sponsored language and cultural initiative, which has been providing qualified teachers to American schools, as well as promoting in-China language programs for teachers and students. There is also some funding from the U.S. Department of Education for so-called “critical language” study, which includes Mandarin.

“We’re seeing Chinese in the same situation we saw Japanese in the ’80s,” Abbott says. “The Japanese economy was really strong then, and when we see a threat from another economy, the push [to learn that language] is strong.”

There is, of course, still plenty of catching up to do — according to a 2006 Department of Education study, 200 million Chinese schoolchildren were studying English, while only 24,000 of their American peers were learning Chinese. That number has increased over the past few years, but the gap is still huge.

That federal study was co-sponsored by U.S. Department of Defense and the director of National Intelligence, perhaps not surprising given the military and intelligence communities’ problems in the war on terror. In announcing the report’s accompanying National Security Language Initiative, President George W. Bush pictured the American language deficit as a security issue. “This initiative is a broad-gauged initiative that deals with the defense of the country, the diplomacy of the country, the intelligence to defend our country and the education of our people,” he told a collection of university presidents in 2006.

Despite the rhetoric and language about starting at kindergarten, the program currently focuses on scholarships to send American high school students overseas to study Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Korean, Persian (Farsi), Russian and Turkish. Their numbers are measured in the hundreds.

And yet, experts in the field believe that overall, things are looking up. Children in our increasingly multicultural society are finding that one way to learn about other cultures is through their languages. Parents are starting to push for more language study, particularly in the elementary schools, and not always in areas expected. Private language academies are popping up all over the country, and online learning is taking off. There is also a slow but growing feeling among firms that manufacture or sell overseas that language skills are an important business tool.

All of which means that language education is, in fact, “a force, not a choice,” says Wang. “Sooner or later we will have to deal with it, and confront the issue that we are so far behind in language studies.”

Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.

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