Americans Are Falling Behind in Foreign-Language Learning

By Corey Mitchell — March 02, 2017 2 min read
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A critical shortage of qualified foreign language teachers in the United States could leave the nation at a competitive disadvantage in an increasingly global, multilingual society, according to a new American Academy of Sciences report.

In what is billed as the first national study of foreign-language learning in nearly three decades, the Commission on Language Learning—a group of education, research, business, and government leaders—recommends a five-step approach to providing access to languages other than English for people of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Commission chair Paul LeClerc, the director of the Columbia University Global Center in Paris, said the greatest obstacle to providing that access is the nation’s persistent shortage of foreign language teachers. In fact, many school districts recruit abroad to bring in qualified educators.

To solve the crisis, the commission recommended a combination of: federal loan forgiveness programs for teachers who become certified to teach foreign languages; more 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.

The commission’s other recommendations include:

  • Develop public-private partnerships with heritage language communities to pave the way for in-school and after-school language programs.
  • Support efforts to preserve heritage languages already spoken in the United States by encouraging English-learners to continue to study their home languages.
  • Target support and programing to introduce more students to Native American languages
  • Promote study abroad opportunities that allow students to immerse themselves in culture and language in other countries.

The American Academy formed the commission in response to a bipartisan congressional request to determine how language learning influences economic growth, cultural diplomacy, and the productivity of future generations.

“While English continues to be the most commonly used language for world trade and diplomacy, there is an emerging consensus among leaders in business and government, teachers, and scientists that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world,” American Academy President Jonathan Fanton said in a statement.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language and other groups such as The College Board will work with the academy to coordinate the release of the report with the launch of Lead with Languages, a multi-year public awareness campaign that aims to make language learning a national priority.

Among the coalition’s recommendations is nationwide adoption of seals of biliteracy, special recognition on high school diplomas for graduates who demonstrate fluency in two or more languages. Close to half the nation’s states already offer the seals and tens of thousands of students are earning the distinction each year.

Here’s a look at the American Academy of Sciences report on language learning.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.