Indifference toward Foreign Languages Could Cost Americans
Census Bureau data represent the most comprehensive evaluation ever of languages spoken in the United States. Previous data sets only included information on 39 languages, while the latest results gathered information on 350 languages.
In the New York Metro area alone, the data reveal at least 192 languages being spoken at home, with 38 percent of the population older than 5 speaking a language other than English at home. In the Los Angeles metro area, 185 languages were identified and 54 percent spoke a language other than English at home.
Current education policies and foreign language
The numbers are a result of languages other than English being spoken in the home rather than as a result of languages actively being taught to students in public schools. The Pew Research Center found that while the majority of European nations require students learn one or more foreign languages, the United States has no such requirements.
A survey of elementary schools found that only 15 percent of public schools had foreign language programs in place. Among the common reasons listed to explain the lack of foreign language offerings included:
- Insufficient funding.
- District policy.
- Teacher shortage.
- Not viewed as a core component of elementary education.
This is problematic considering research has shown early immersion in a foreign language is most effective.
Most states do not require any foreign language credits for students to graduate from high school. Of those that do, many offer students the option of substituting coursework in a different area such as music, art, or vocational education.
While many colleges require applicants to have taken foreign language in high school, it’s often a different story when they get on campus. The Modern Language Association found that student enrollment in college language classes other than English has been declining. Between 2009 and 2013, enrollment decreased by about 100,000.
Benefits of learning foreign languages
Learning a foreign language has benefits that reach beyond the ability to communicate effectively with people from other cultures. Mirta Desir, founder and CEO of Smart Coos, points to the benefits of being both bilingual and bi-literate saying, “Biliteracy and bilingualism have a profound effect on the brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language.”
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages found that learning a foreign language supports academic achievement and provides the following benefits:
- Higher scores on standardized tests.
- Increased development of student reading ability.
- Transfer of skill from one language to another.
- Increased linguistic awareness.
- Increased ability of scientific hypothesizing.
- Offset of age-related cognitive losses.
- Increased problem-solving ability.
While those benefits are applicable across virtually all academic endeavors, access to classes to learn foreign languages is lacking in the American system of education.
Economic potential of being bilingual
Interpreters and translators are needed for every language spoken in the United States. Various laws require that people have access to a translator for basic services such as healthcare. This has contributed dramatically to the increasing need for employees who are proficient in foreign languages.
Christina Brownlee, director of marketing for Vocalink Language Services, addresses the importance of translators. “That’s a massive requirement, and we’re not doing anything about it in our school systems to meet the demand.”
The global market for translation technologies and services was estimated at $40 billion in 2016 and by 2020 is projected to reach $45 billion. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected much faster than average job growth in this sector through 2024 at a rate of 29 percent.
A report by Dr. Patrícia Gandára and Sylvia Acevedo says, “In the 21st century, language will be as important to business as technology was in the last century.” The authors continue by explaining the diversification of the world economy and the limitations faced by American students who speak only English.
The need for employees proficient in an array of foreign languages is growing across industries and will continue to expand for the foreseeable future. This growth stems from a need of all industries to produce materials for customers in their native language in order to be competitive globally.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has created a comprehensive statistical portrait of the state of language learning in the U.S. that makes a clear case for a greater prioritization of teaching foreign languages. The research indicates the inclusion of foreign languages in the curriculum should be in addition to existing requirements.