Education Opinion

Foreign Language Priorities

By Walt Gardner — October 21, 2013 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. is rightly known as a monolingual country. Unlike Europe, where 53 percent of the population can converse in a second language, only 10 percent of native-born Americans can do the same (“Advocates Seek More Focus on Learning Foreign Languages,” Education Week, Oct. 9). But if the goal of learning a foreign language is reduced solely to prepare students for the global economy, it’s important to make certain distinctions.

The real need is to produce students who can speak Mandarin, Arabic, Korean and Farsi. These are known as strategic languages. The problem is that they are hard to learn. According to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, it takes the average English speaker 1,320 hours to become proficient in these languages. This compares with 480 hours to learn Spanish, French or Italian. The Foreign Service Institute goes a step further by classifying foreign language ability into five levels, with 1 meaning the student can handle only the simplest social situations and 5 being assigned only to native speakers.

One bright sign is that the number of students in college learning Arabic, for example, has risen to more than 35,000. This compares with fewer than 3,600 students in 1990, according to a survey by the Modern Language Association (“More American Jewish Students Take Up Study of the Arab World,” The New York Times, Oct. 18). I haven’t seen any estimate of the number of students in K-12 who are studying Arabic.

None of the above means that studying Spanish, French, Italian or German is not worthwhile. On the contrary. Research shows that the brains of people who know two or more languages are different from those who know only one. They are better at reasoning and retain their cognitive faculties longer (“The Power of the Bilingual Brain,” Time, Jul. 29). Moreover, learning any foreign language exposes students to other cultures as well. But like it or not, the greatest impetus for the study of a foreign language is its economic benefit.

That’s unfortunate because there is great pleasure in being able to converse in any other language. When I was in high school, I took three years of Spanish. I learned more there than I did during the three years of Spanish that I took in college. I attribute the difference to the emphasis on speaking Spanish (in the former) rather than on reading or writing ( in the latter). As a result, I feel perfectly comfortable conversing in Spanish here in Los Angeles, which is unofficially bilingual.

Because of the new realities, there are those who believe the U.S. needs a national foreign language director (“Tongue Tied,” The New Republic, Oct. 24, 2005). The goal would be to increase the number of diplomats, teachers, analysts and others who can speak foreign languages. I seriously doubt this position will ever be created, but its mere suggestion is an indication of the changes in attitudes about America’s linguistic isolationism.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.