How Much Foreign Language Is Being Taught in U.S. Schools?

By Corey Mitchell — June 01, 2017 2 min read
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A first-of-its-kind national survey sought to examine the state of foreign language education in primary and secondary schools, but found a striking “lack of knowledge about foreign language teaching and learning.”

The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey sought out data on foreign language course enrollment by state and the number of programs by state. The survey also explored the range of languages that are taught in schools and where. The survey was sponsored by the Language Flagship at the Defense Language and National Security Education Office, which is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Coming on the heels of an American Academy of Arts & Sciences report that concluded that the United States —with its mostly monolingual residents —could face social and economic disadvantages in an increasingly multilingual, global society, the surveyors were only able to collect data from 44 percent of the nation’s high school and 38 percent of K-8 schools.

That lack of comprehensive enrollment data on foreign language education in the United States “seriously complicates the analysis of local or national trends, particularly at a time of significant demographic shifts in the U.S. population and a resurgence of interest in foreign language instruction in many school districts around the country,” the report authors argue.

The survey also found that an overwhelming majority of schools do not use a nationally available standardized test to measure how much world language students are learning.

The survey’s authors recommend future national studies, with more funding and more time for data collection, to:

  • Identify schools with robust foreign language programs that could serve as national models.
  • Help schools collaborate on teacher training and curriculum development.
  • Encourage articulated language sequences from elementary through high school.
  • Explore student participation in government-sponsored extracurricular foreign language opportunities.

The report calculates 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.

But the enrollment rates vary widely from state to state. More than half of New Jersey’s public K-12 students are enrolled in foreign language classes, according to estimates. But in states such as Arizona and Arkansas, the survey estimates that fewer than 10 percent of students are studying world languages in school.

Across the map, Romance languages are taught most often in U.S. high schools, with 46 percent of all foreign language classes focusing on Spanish and another 21 percent on French. Chinese, German, and Latin are the only other world languages that account for more than 5 percent of the courses offered to secondary school students.

The report notes the rising popularity of Chinese language courses, which are now taught in every state except for South Dakota.

The American Councils for International Education published the report in partnership with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the Center for Applied Linguistics, the Modern Language Association, and the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages.

Here’s a copy of the report.

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