Education Opinion

The Foreign-Language Crisis in Schools

By Walt Gardner — May 18, 2015 1 min read
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The U.S. is tongue tied at a time when the need for learning foreign languages has never been greater (“America’s Lacking Language Skills,” The Atlantic, May 10). Less than one percent of adults in the U.S. are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a classroom. Of students in K-12, fewer students are studying what are called strategic languages, let alone becoming proficient in them.

I can understand up to a point the reluctance of students to study, for example, Mandarin, Arabic or Farsi. According to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, it takes the average native English speaker 1,320 hours to become proficient. This compares with 480 hours to reach the same level in French, Spanish or Italian. How many students are willing to make that kind of commitment?

Yet the payoff can be huge. Corporations and government agencies are desperate to find qualfied speakers. They pay them accordingly. But even if enough students could be convinced to study strategic languages, finding qualified teachers remains a daunting problem. Why would they want to teach if they can earn almost double elsewhere? In the past when schools tried to recruit Mandarin teachers directly from China, the lack of respect accorded them from students here compared with students abroad has been a constant complaint.

I was extremely fortunate to become bilingual after three years of studying Spanish in a public high school. The additional years I studied the language in college were not nearly as helpful, but together they’ve made me feel quite at ease speaking Spanish every day here in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, if I were still in school I would choose to learn Mandarin because of the potential career benefits. The time and effort required to speak it would be well worthwhile in the new global economy.

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.