International Opinion

The Language Shift

By Anthony Jackson — September 18, 2013 4 min read
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Language shifts have happened in societies since the beginning of recorded history. Today, Marty Abbott, head of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), explains a language shift currently taking place in the United States. I am pleased to be part of this movement. I hope you, too, will join.

by Marty Abbott

What is it about the United States that we remain the only developed country that routinely graduates students from high school with the knowledge of only one language? We can start with our history of language education. Traditionally, we have “studied” languages—and that implies that we are learning much about those languages but not focusing on how to use them to communicate. Most students have viewed language learning as a requirement, sometimes for graduation from high school, sometimes for admission to college or as a college requirement for a certain major. This leads to an attitude that several years of language study is something that you tick off your list of accomplishments. In addition, with the focus on study and not on communication, we have generations of Americans who feel that their investment in language study did not pay off in significant dividends.

However, with our changing demographics, our emphasis on global competitiveness, and our increased use of the Internet and social media to stay connected—we are beginning to see a shift in attitude mainly among our young people. This shift involves viewing language learning and cultural understanding as a critical necessity for success in today’s global environment. As young learners interact on a daily basis via the internet, they are increasingly engaging with those who do not necessarily speak English. While historically American citizens had little need to know other languages, the interconnectivity of today’s society guarantees that most U.S. citizens will encounter someone whose native language is not English—for most on a daily basis. And it is this interconnectivity that is forcing the shift in interest in language learning across the United States.

Our language classrooms are beginning to change to meet this new demand. Fortunately, the national standards for language learning clearly articulate this shift with the identification of one of the five goals of the National Standards for Foreign Language Education as Communities, i.e., using the language beyond the classroom.

Language teachers are now focusing outward beyond the confines of the classroom or even the school or community in which they are teaching to provide an opportunity for their students to use the language in real world settings. Nothing is more motivating to students than to interact with a native speaker of the language, especially a peer. This interaction not only makes for improved communication in the target language, but also leads to greater understanding and empathy toward the speakers of the language—and probably the best realization of all—they have a lot more in common with their peers in other countries than they do in their differences.

Has the shift truly taken hold in the general U.S. public? Well, not exactly. While survey after survey indicates that people think it’s a good idea to learn languages, many still associate language learning with something that is difficult and only for a chosen few. So a national public awareness campaign is necessary to truly get at changing the hearts and minds of Americans on this issue.

ACTFL is undertaking this campaign, which is scheduled to launch in early 2014. We are enlisting the support of other language associations, educational associations, and government agencies. In addition, we are assembling an Honorary Council of high-profile advocates who will work with us to bring this issue to the greater public. We are very pleased that this list includes current and former senators, governors, and mayors as well as Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense, and Jon Huntsman, former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China. We will be taking this important message to the public, including public service announcements by multilingual celebrities and personalities. We are also expecting a ground swell of support from parents who know that being able to communicate in other languages is an increasingly important skill for those entering today’s job market. They will be important allies in carrying this message to school administrators and other decision-makers.

So the language shift is happening! Our opinion polling indicates that both students and parents understand the connection between languages and future success. As educators we have a responsibility to prepare our students for the world in which they will live and work—for the world will be theirs. And in order to do that, we all need to be part of promoting the languages shift—so that our students can engage with the rest of world in a meaningful way. Stay tuned for the development of the campaign and other language advocacy efforts at the ACTFL website.

Marty Abbott is executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Follow her, ACTFL, and Asia Society on Twitter.

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