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Strategic Foreign Language Study Is a Must

By Walt Gardner — June 30, 2017 1 min read

The U.S. is one of the few countries in the industrialized world where speaking a foreign languages is rare (“Just 20 Percent of K-12 Students Are Learning a Foreign Language,” Education Week, Jun. 20). That’s unfortunate because learning Arabic, Mandarin, Farsi, Korean and Russian, which collectively are referred to as “strategic” languages, pays big dividends.

Let me be clear: There’s nothing at all wrong about studying traditional European languages. But if students are looking ahead to future employment, they would be well advised to remember that the language industry employs more than 200,000 Americans who earn an annual median salary of $80,000 (“America’s Lacking Language Skills,” The Atlantic, May 10, 2015).

I realize that not all public schools teach strategic languages and that even if they do it takes the average English speaker 1,320 hours to become proficient in, say, Mandarin compared with 480 hours in Spanish, French and Italian, according to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats. But the effort will pay off.

For students who want to serve their country, learning a strategic language is indispensable. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the F.B.I desperately needed Arabic translators. What quickly became apparent, however, was that the Arabic taught in American universities was Modern Standard Arabic. But it was different from the Arabic used in conversations (“Lost in Translation at the F.B.I.” The New York Times, Jun. 1, 2002).

If I were in a position to advise young people, I would explain how they could assure themselves of a well-paying future and at the same time serve their country by studying strategic languages.

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.