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Study of Mandarin Chinese By U.S. Students Booming

By Erik W. Robelen — March 29, 2011 3 min read
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Chinese is in. Latin and French, it seems, are out. And Spanish is still, well, el jefe. (Translation: the boss or chief.) That’s my quick-and-dirty takeaway from new data on the study of foreign languages by U.S. students.

In another sign of China’s growing prominence on the world stage, the number of U.S. students learning Mandarin Chinese has tripled in recent years, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. But the roughly 60,000 young people studying it as of the 2007-08 academic year was dwarfed by the millions learning Spanish, by far the most popular language.

Overall, the data released today show that enrollment in foreign-language courses and programs has increased slightly. That may sound like good news, but as officials at the council are quick to note, it’s nothing to celebrate, as fewer than one-in-five American students at the K-12 level are enrolled in foreign-language education. That’s right, only 18.5 percent in 2007-08, or 8.9 million students, up from 18 percent in 2004-05.

“We’re still woefully behind almost all other countries of the world, particularly industrialized countries,” Marty Abbott, the education director at ACTFL, told me in an interview. “When you look at all the countries that surpass us on the PISA tests, they all have early-language programs, they start children learning language in elementary schools.”

She added: “In Europe, the whole effort is to learn another language besides your language to a near-native level, and a third or fourth at what they call a ‘functional proficiency level,’ ” she said.

Abbott did note that the data are more favorable when looking at the middle and high school levels, where most U.S. students study foreign languages. In grades 7-12, 32 percent were taking a foreign language. But that still suggests that most students will graduate from high school without ever having studied a foreign language.

As for Mandarin, Abbott said she’s not surprised to see more students studying it, noting that this is consistent with previous trends when the rise in a nation’s prominence led to more U.S. students studying the language. In the 1960s, she said, there was a big rise in the study of Russian, and Japanese in the 1980s. (I wrote last fall about the growing role of the Chinese government itself in promoting Mandarin-language instruction in the United States.)

I also spoke with Bret Lovejoy, the executive director of the ACTFL. He said the question is whether Mandarin will remain popular.

“The problem I see is that, and this can be with any language that seems to grab the attention of a lot of people, is how well is it going to be sustained over time,” he told me. “And too often, what we see is that a new language program is installed in a school system or a school, and that one that’s there and that may be very successful is eliminated.”

Here’s a snapshot of key findings, based on comparing 2004-05 enrollment with 2007-08. The languages that saw an increase include:

• Mandarin, up 195 percent to 60,000;
• Japanese, up 18 percent to 73,000;
• German, up 8 percent to 395,000;
• Russian, up 3 percent to 12,000; and
• Spanish, up 2 percent, to 6.42 million.

Meanwhile:

• French is down 3 percent to 1.25 million; and
• Latin is down 9 percent to 205,000.

There are plenty more data to mine in this report, so you should check it out.

One other thing. President Barack Obama just yesterday promoted the learning of foreign languages in a speech at a District of Columbia public school.

“For all the young people here, I want you guys to be studying hard because it is critical for all American students to have language skills. And I want everybody here to be working hard to make sure that you don’t just speak one language, you speak a bunch of languages.”

Lovejoy said he was pleased by the plug for learning other languages, but said he’s been disappointed by the president when it comes to action.

“He’s saying the right things, but we’re not really seeing this translate into policy,” Lovejoy told me.

He highlighted the fact that President Obama has proposed to consolidate funding for the $27 million Foreign Language Assistance Program at the U.S. Department of Education into a broader, competitive fund focused on promoting a “well-rounded education.”

“The only proposal we’ve seen is to fold the FLAP into the well-rounded child [program],” Lovejoy said, “and I think that will lead to less money for languages.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.


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