Advocates Seek More Focus on Learning Foreign Languages

By Alyssa Morones — October 08, 2013 4 min read
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As business and culture in the United States continue to be ever more defined by their global connections, advocates for the teaching of foreign languages are ramping up their efforts to make the learning of foreign languages a higher national priority.

The issue was front and center at a forum here last week that brought together experts from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, to elevate the discussion on the increasing need for the study of foreign languages in English-speaking countries and to examine strategies to boost language instruction.

“There’s no longer a premium for English. The global conversation is out of control, and our commerce and government are struggling to keep up,” said William P. Rivers, the executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages-National Council for Language and International Studies, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for language and international education.

“Language is the oil of the 21st century,” he said at the conference hosted by the University of Maryland College Park.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, 10 percent of native-born U.S. citizens said they felt comfortable conversing in a language other than English. By contrast, 53 percent of Europeans are able to converse in a second language.

Panelists from a variety of fields spoke at the September 30th conference, including educators, researchers, business leaders, and representatives from federal and state governments. One recurring theme was the need for multilingual employees in a global economy.

“There’s a talent gap that’s causing U.S. companies to look globally [when hiring],” said Norm Newton, the vice president and general manager of the Manpower Group, an American multinational human-resource-consulting firm based in Milwaukee.

Learning 1,000 Words

Like the United States, the United Kingdom is realizing the disadvantage that comes with having a predominantly monolingual society—a realization that representatives of Britain expressed during the forum. In fact, the nation recently began a campaign to encourage every citizen to learn at least 1,000 words in another language, according to a report from the British Broadcasting Corp.

Similarly, a public-awareness campaign from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization that works to improve and expand foreign-language education, which the organization plans to launch in early 2014, will seek to communicate the importance of language education to students and parents.

While the campaign is still in its planning stages, initial polling has shown that the possibility of more career opportunities that comes with speaking another language is a message that resonates, according to Martha G. Abbott, the executive director of the ACTFL.

Ms. Abbott said the campaign will attempt to “raise awareness about how important languages are to a young person’s future, and that it’s good to learn and pursue them.”

“We want to start to raise a multilingual citizenry that can engage with the rest of the world,” she said.

The campaign will feature a website that will provide parents and students, and other interested parties, such as policymakers and school administrators, with information on the importance of learning a second language and how and where students can pursue language study.

It also will involve public-service announcements that will be broadcast on television and radio, intended to drive traffic to the website. The ACTFL plans to partner with role-model celebrities and athletes to help spread the word on the campaign and encourage foreign-language learning.

The ACTFL is also reaching out to other political leaders, organizations, and foreign governments to help pay for and promote the campaign.

“I’m pretty convinced we’re at a tipping point,” said Ms. Abbott. “No one [we’re reaching out to] is saying this isn’t important.”

Immersion Programs

In spite of general support, some experts at the event last week argued, the attempt to encourage more and better foreign-language instruction may face hurdles, including the growing emphasis on STEM education, shorthand for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“In the 21st century, language education is equally important to STEM,” said John Tessitore, a program director and special assistant to the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, during a panel discussion.

Ms. Abbott said that is an issue the campaign needs to address.

“The critical point that we need to make is that these are not two separate endeavors,” she said. “The content of a language class can be a STEM subject. It would just be that the student is learning that subject in a target language.”

One strategy for effective language instruction that was promoted at the forum is the use of language-immersion programs, which analysts say are becoming increasingly popular in some parts of the country.

Two prime examples, Ms. Abbott said, are Delaware and Utah, where the governors have led the way in creating statewide initiatives to make immersion programs far more widespread.

Delaware began to implement its immersion effort during the 2012-13 school year, specifically citing the role language education plays in ensuring the state’s children are competitive in a global economy.

Utah’s program began four years ago. Today, almost half of the state’s school districts offer elementary dual-language programs. According to state officials, the initiative is intended in part to help lure international companies to the area and to make its graduates stronger job candidates.

“I think when other governors realize that this is a good investment in the future of the state, then we may find some more states doing similar programs,” Ms. Abbott said.


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