Other Native-English Countries Ahead of United States

By Mary Ann Zehr & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 11, 2006 4 min read
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Even as the focus on foreign-language instruction up north and Down Under has waned recently in the wake of renewed attention to reading, mathematics, and science instruction, countries outside the United States where English is the primary language have more than a decade’s head start in their language skills and public attitudes on the importance of language learning.

“How far behind is the United States compared to other countries? I think enormously,” said Alan Ruby, a former deputy secretary for the Ministry of Education in Australia and now a senior fellow in the graduate education program at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. “It’s almost impossible to gauge how much competitiveness the U.S. will lose because it doesn’t have the language skills.”

Australia instituted a national language policy in 1987 that is credited with expanding foreign-language programs in government schools and transforming public opinion about language education. Although students are not required to study a foreign language, most do so.

“We had one of the worst performances in foreign-language teaching before,” said Joseph Lo Bianco, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Melbourne and the author of Australia’s language policy. “Now, there is a huge amount of public support, … language learning is expected, and in some places in K-12, there is close to universal coverage,” he said.

Trilingual Trend

In Canada, a country with an official dual-language tradition, the federal government provides funding and support services to all provinces to boost language learning, and maintains a federal commission and ombudsman on languages. Many provinces require, or strongly encourage, students to learn French and English in middle school, and most students continue that study into high school, where they are likely to take up study of a third language, according to Maureen E. Smith, a past president of the Ontario Modern Language Teachers Association.

Recent attention to improving math and science instruction has, in some places, threatened that strong tradition, Ms. Smith said. But some provinces, such as Alberta, have instituted even stronger foreign-language programs in the past several years. That Western province has intensive language classes in Chinese, Ukranian, Punjabi, Korean, Arabic, and the indigenous Cree. French study is also a mainstay.

“They are building upon that notion that learning a second language leads to learning a third language that makes their graduates much more marketable,” said Ms. Smith, an instructor of French and modern languages at the University of Western Ontario. “In Ontario, we’re losing ground. We’re not in as happy a place as we were a generation ago in terms of languages.”

As in the United States, business leaders in the United Kingdom have decried the lack of attention given to teaching youngsters foreign languages.

A study, “Talking World Class,” published last year by the National Centre for Languages, which advises the government on language policy, showed that the United Kingdom as a whole ranks last among 28 European countries in the proportion of its people who speak a language other than their mother tongue. The United Kingdom has more success selling to English-speaking countries than non-English-speaking countries.

Yet the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—has done much more than the United States to generate national initiatives urging schools to teach foreign languages.

Its Department for Education and Skills published a national strategy for foreign-language teaching in England in 2002.

The main thrust of the strategy, according to Teresa Tinsley, the assistant director for communications for the National Centre for Languages, is to have every primary school offering a foreign language by the end of this decade. Currently, foreign-language study is compulsory for children in middle school, ages 11 to 14.

Ms. Tinsley noted that the center, which receives government funding, crafted a framework for foreign-language teaching in England’s 18,000 primary schools. The framework provides standards for what children need to know and be able to do. It also tells schools how to fit foreign-language teaching into the curriculum.

The government doesn’t dictate what language to teach. Overall, more British schoolchildren study French, with Spanish taking second place in primary school and German a runner up in secondary school, according to Ms. Tinsley. Less commonly taught languages include Turkish and Greek.

U.S. Efforts

More and more U.S. educators and policymakers are seeing the need to catch up. President Bush has requested $114 million for fiscal 2007 to pay for the teaching of “critical” languages, which include Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian, in both K-12 and higher education. As part of that initiative, $24 million would be used to create K-16 model programs to build a pipeline for fluent speakers.

Last month, Mr. Bush and members of Congress introduced the American Competitiveness Initiative, which would beef up foreign-language offerings, along with math and science, in high schools.

“The momentum is there, and interest is rising,” said Michael Levine, the director of international education for the New York City-based Asia Society. “Other countries have moved forward. Our trading partners and our diplomatic partners are seeing this as important.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Other Native-English Countries Ahead of United States


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