Why America Lags Behind the Rest of the World in Language Education

Education is dominated by disputes over priorities, largely because of politics and limited funding. Some people, for example, think arts instruction is financial quicksand, while some believe that sports don’t belong in the schools. Others, meanwhile, even assert that schools’ emphasis on math could be holding students back. Language is another subject area whose importance is greatly debated. Advocates and educators disagree about whether it’s a worthwhile investment—whether it’s something that produces a greater return than, say, social studies. And within the realm of language, advocates clash over which ones should take precedence.

Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom. That’s noteworthy considering that in 2008 almost all high schools in the country—93 percent—offered foreign languages, according to a national survey. In many cases, as Richard Brecht, who oversees the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, said on Thursday: “It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.”

Language proficiency is just as hard to build as it is to maintain. But the same could be said even about core subjects, such as math. Five years ago, I took Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra; now, I need a calculator to multiply four by seven. Still, my math classes taught me something more valuable than how to solve a complex equation: I learned skills that help me with the accounting, bookkeeping, research, and budget strategizing required in my day job. Like math, language-learning is shown to come with a host of cognitive and academic benefits. And knowing a foreign language is an undoubtedly practical skill: According to Mohamed Abdel-Kader, the deputy leading the DOE’s language-education arm, one in five jobs are tied to international trade. Meanwhile, the Joint National Committee for Languages reports that the language industry—which includes companies that provide language services and materials—employs more than 200,000 Americans. These employees earn an annual median wage of $80,000.

Kirsten Brecht-Baker, the founder of Global Professional Search, recently told me about what she calls “the global war for talent.” Americans, she said, are in danger of needing to import human capital because insufficient time or dollars are being invested in language education domestically. “It can’t just be about specialization [in engineering or medicine or technology] anymore,” she said. “They have to communicate in the language.”

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