Equity & Diversity

Just 20 Percent of K-12 Students Are Learning a Foreign Language

By Corey Mitchell — June 20, 2017 7 min read
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Arguing that the inability to communicate in any language but English constitutes a threat to the nation’s economic and military security, two recent studies have painted a grim picture of foreign-language education in the nation’s K-12 schools.

The reports from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and American Councils for International Education found that public schools and state departments of education are struggling to find qualified world language instructors and unequipped to track local and national trends on language learning.

The American Councils for International Education survey—which sought state-by-state data on enrollment in foreign language courses—estimates that 10.6 million K-12 students in the United States are studying a world language or American Sign Language.

That’s only one out of every five students.

The survey team also found a striking “lack of knowledge about foreign language teaching and learning.”

In at least two states, fewer than 10 percent of students are studying a language other than English.

“We’re such a long way in this country from having it be normal to grow up learning other languages,” said Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “Our future depends on our ability to engage with the rest of the world, and right now Americans have a very tough time doing that.”

Researchers say the shortcomings are most glaring in so-called critical-need languages, such as Arabic, that are considered crucial to national security, but are among the least commonly taught and also considered the most difficult to learn.

While fewer U.S. residents speak Arabic than Spanish, Chinese, French, and Vietnamese, U.S. Census data indicate that it’s the nation’s fastest-growing language.

Arabic is also the second-most spoken home language for English-language learners in the nation’s K-12 public schools, trailing only Spanish, according to 2013-14 federal data. That adds up to nearly 110,000 students in the nation’s classrooms who report Arabic as their home language.

Despite that, almost eight times as many students are enrolled in courses in Latin, a so-called “dead language,” than Arabic, one that is very much in demand in the 21st century.

“There are some hindrances there, but I am not sure what [they are],” said Aman Attieh, the executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic. “The language is there. Things are going to get better, but it’s going to take time.”

Cultural Connections

That disconnect between national demand and local supply is apparent in the number of students studying Arabic.

Since terrorists from Arab countries attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has desperately sought to hire fluent speakers of Arabic. But even now, more than 15 years later, the nation has only a small pool of students who have dived in.

To be clear, a growing number of students—an estimated 26,000—are studying Arabic in the nation’s K-12 schools. But that number represents less than 0.25 percent of students studying a foreign language.

Arabic language teachers trained with post-9/11 government funding are finding jobs in schools around the country, but their lessons aren’t always embraced or welcome.

President Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has re-ignited and perpetuated fears about the language and culture, and some of that angst has played out on school grounds.

In August 2015, residents protested at the new Arabic Immersion Magnet School in Houston, denouncing Arabic, Islam, and drawing ties to the Sept. 11 attacks.

One protester’s sign read: “Qatar out of our school,” in reference to Qatar Foundation International, a charity that plans to spends $2.5 million this year to support Arabic language instruction in 25 K-12 schools in the United States, including the Houston-based magnet school.

The foundation’s money helps fund Arabic classes that reach about 2,400 students in eight states and the District of Columbia.

“We never actually go to a school and say, ‘Here’s money, do this,’ ” said Carine Allaf, a senior program adviser for the foundation. “Our main mission is cross-cultural understanding. The best way to do that is to use language learning as a window into other cultures.”

The Qatar Foundation International has set a goal of doubling the number of students learning Arabic in the next five years, but Allaf said she’s aware that the language is still “not seen as a mainstream option for learning.”

That’s despite the fact that having employees who can speak the language is increasingly useful and necessary for multinational corporations and industries looking to make business connections and inroads in the Arab world.

Experts point out that language-learning trends can be fickle.

Students packed into Russian courses in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War and Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union.

In the 1980s, Japanese was a trendy choice when many viewed the nation as the United States’ chief economic competitor.

Decades later, less than one percent of K-12 students learning a foreign language are targeting those tongues.

Fueled by the efforts from the Obama White House and the US-China Strong Foundation, which aims to have 1 million Americans studying Mandarin by 2020, the study of the language of the world’s most commonly spoken language is on the rise.

Nationwide, there are more than 200 Mandarin dual-language programs in K-12 schools, where students learn in both Mandarin and English. That’s an exponential increase over 2009, when roughly 10 such programs existed.

“As a country, we’ve moved toward learning languages where we see an economic competitiveness,” Abbott said.

Tale of Two States

Foreign language enrollment and investment vary widely from state to state.

New Jersey is one of 11 states where foreign language study is required for students to graduate from high school.

More than half of the state’s public school students—including those in elementary and middle schools—are enrolled in world language courses. The state also is among more than half of states that offer the seal of biliteracy—special recognition on high school diplomas for graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages.

The story is different in Arkansas, where the American Councils of International Education-led study estimated that fewer than 10 percent of students are studying world languages in school.

The state doesn’t track the number of elementary and middle school students studying a foreign language.

Students don’t have to study a foreign language to graduate from high school, and the state does not yet offer the seal of biliteracy. State officials estimate that 25 percent of high school students study a foreign language, mostly because many colleges with competitive admissions standards require at least two years of foreign language classes in high school.

Arkansas, like many other states, has struggled to find teachers.

The state has 10 critical teacher shortage areas including Spanish and French, the two most commonly taught languages in the state’s K-12 schools. But special education, mathematics, and physical sciences are also on the list, said Thomas Coy, program director of curriculum support services.

“We’d be hard-pressed to find schools that didn’t recognize the value of offering a foreign language program and didn’t recognize the value of studying cultural diversity,” Coy said. “But there are a lot of rural schools with other priorities as well.”

Nationwide, 44 states and the District of Columbia are on the hunt for certified foreign language instructors.

“The demand is really growing and we don’t have the supply,” Abbott said.

To address the issues, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has launched Lead with Languages, a public awareness campaign that aims to make language learning a national priority.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences formed its Commission on Language Learning in response to a bipartisan congressional request to determine how language learning influences economic growth, cultural diplomacy, and the productivity of future generations.

To remedy the teaching shortage, the commission recommended a combination of several steps.

Among them: Including more consistent use of online and digital education options, a nationwide coordination of teacher credentialing that allows instructors to find work in areas where there are shortages, and a renewed commitment from the nation’s colleges and universities to train more foreign language teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teacher Shortages Hinder Foreign-Language Instruction


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