Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MORE: Language Learning in the USA

U.S. Falls Behind in Foreign Languages
by Joseph Picard / Thursday, Dec 9 2010


Americans are not, in general, proficient in foreign languages. That situation, according to experts, is not good for the nation, not good for humanity, and not good for the individual monolinguist.

"For the United States to get to where it needs to be will require a national commitment to strengthening America's foreign language proficiency."

So said Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA, on Wednesday, hosted a national Foreign Language Summit, which included policymakers, lawmakers, intelligence community members and foreign language educators from across the country.

The message was as Panetta said: to stay competitive in the global society, the U.S. needs more people with foreign language proficiency.

"Mastery of a second language allows you to capture the nuances that are essential to true understanding," Panetta told attendees. "This is not about learning something that is helpful or simply nice to have. It is crucial to CIA's mission."

A number of reports over the past several years point to a shortage of translators in the U.S. military and other agencies that work overseas, and how that shortage affects knowledge, understanding of culture and an ability to work together with foreign people and organizations.

Anthony Grafton, professor of History at Princeton University, writing this week in the university newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, addressed the problem as it regards the military.

"Sadly, many Americans don't see the point of studying foreign languages at all, since the world seems to have learned English," Grafton said. "I wish everyone could speak, as I have, with a veteran of the Iraq war who has done house-to-house searches at night without the benefit of a competent interpreter."

Both Panetta and Grafton know that the problem extends beyond the military and government service.

"A significant cultural change needs to occur," Panetta said. "And that requires a transformation in attitude from everyone involved: individuals, government, schools and universities, and the private sector."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that schools, colleges, and universities need to invest more, and more intelligently, in linguistic instruction.

Duncan said a top priority of his department and the administration will be the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"Our proposal to reauthorize goes much further than the existing law in supporting a well-rounded, world-class education," he said. "The blueprint to reform the law would create a competitive pool of $265 million to strengthen the teaching of the arts, languages, civics, government and other subjects."

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-NJ, has written legislation to increase federal funding for foreign language education.

"We need to alter dramatically how children learn language at an early age," Holt said, adding that the government should focus its efforts on teaching languages in grades K through 12.

Rita Oleksak is the director of Foreign Language for the Glastonbury Public Schools in Glastonbury, Connecticut, a school district where foreign language proficiency is required in elementary school.

"It's a whole mindset," she said. "Our foreign language program is integrated across the curriculum. Students learn necessary skills in foreign languages. They learn to make connections between languages. They learn how languages and cultures are the same and how they are different."

Oleksak said that in the current, interconnected world, with so much knowledge at everyone's fingertips, knowledge of another language and another culture is essential.

"Through foreign language proficiency students can learn how people are more similar than different," Oleksak said.

John Carlino, executive director of the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers, said his organization believes that "the ability to communicate in other languages and the cross-cultural skills one builds in learning a language are essential components of a 21st century education."

Carlino said that while English may be becoming a global language in the business world, "it's important to point out that if everyone else speaks our language, but we don't speak other languages or understand other cultures, we are at a huge disadvantage in the global market."

Martha Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, agreed.

"It's very naïve to say 'the world speaks English' therefore I don't need a foreign language," she said. "Who has the advantage in business when they know your language and you don't know theirs?"

Abbott pointed out that the United States recently ranked 26 in the PISA tests. That's the Program for International Student Assessment, conducted every several years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The test covers a range of learned skills, and the U.S. Department of Education and other organizations are bemoaning the results and promising vigorous actions to turn the tide.

Abbott said that each of the top ten nations in the PISA listing required the learning of foreign languages in their school systems.

"The United States does not," she said.

Both Abbott and Carlino cited research that says that a student's overall cognitive abilities improve when he or she learns a foreign language.

"The brain is like a muscle," Abbott said. "When you learn a foreign language you begin working parts of the brain you do not normally use. It increases intelligence, communications skills, higher level thinking skills, critical analysis."

"Brain and language acquisition research has shown that the earlier one starts and the longer the duration of exposure to another language, the deeper, quicker and longer lasting the learning will be," Carlino said.


-- > It's nice to read about leaders trying to help prepare our youth to not just survive, but to excel in tomorrow's world. Do you think these leaders will be successful?

-- > 2050 seems forever away. But most of today's High Schoolers will still need to be earning paychecks then.

-- > What skills will you have in your tool belts upon graduation, to help you be competitive in the next 4-5 decades?

-- > Do you agree that there's a significant need to sharpen up the "survival kits" that our youngest citizens are being equipped with through their education?

-- > How critical do you feel it is, that you are able to contribute to the world culture -- including by being FLUENT in a minimum one language other than English?


  1. Ja, dies könnte die Schulen start Sprache in jungen Jahren.

  2. I hope that these leaders will be successful. It seems like everyone is wanting for more foreign language to be taught but do nothing about it. I will be graduating (hopefully) with good work ethic and multiple years of German, which I hope prove to be useful. I feel that it is critical for students to sharpen their "survival kits" because we will be competing on a global market scale. In other words, there will be a lot of competition.

  3. Foreign languadge is important, I believe that we should pick a launguadge at the end of elementary school and have to stick with it, and that every school should have a lot and the same to choose from


  4. Well comming from me that had to learn English, I do agree that this country is unaware of the various languages that are spoken in this country and taking a second language would make life a whole lot simpler for people for obvious reasons.

  5. We always talk about how much better it would be to have Americans learning languages earlier. Obviously the other contries get it. Why havn't we started language programs earlier? Who can we count on to make it happen too? We can't just talk about it, it needs to get done. I almost feel cheated because I didn't have the opportunity to learn a language when it would've been really easy. I couldn't even take German in 7th or 8th grade. It wasn't an option and something really needs to be done soon.

  6. I hope that America will start to teach kids foreign languages at younger ages. Other countries start kids in elementary school, we start in eighth grade. Something must be done to enhance our language system. It is not fair to our kids because they are being held back with their learning.

  7. It is funny how in Africa we grow up learning and speaking many languages at the same time. for example, I grew up learning French in school, since everything was in French in schools, learning the principal dialect of Togo from Togolese friends, and also learning the my parents language (from Rwanda) from them. basically i grew up learning 3 languages at the same time. we started learning English in middle school, and in high school there is German, Spanish, and Latin. But in Togo, everyone spoke at least 3 languages, growing up( there were 40 different dialects in Togo) plus French and others.

  8. I think that our country really needs to start teaching languages as a younger age. It is so useful to know other languages for many reasons. I think our country understands this but we just don't want to change the current system. I think this is an important issue our country needs to work on

  9. I agree with Berthold the earlyer that we learn a language the better off you are out in that country if youre there visiting and no one speaks english were you are located at the present time. So you are better off learning a langauge earlyer rather then latter. Because if you get stuck in a country that you know the language of you might be able to get out easier then not knowing that language and having to spend money and tim trying to find a translator in that country.

  10. North Kingstown's school department really seems to be moving in the opposite direction. I don't have any younger siblings, but I heard from people in class this week who do, and the French classes in the middle schools don't exist anymore. Why should the students be limited to one language?

    Spanish is a very useful language, considering the number of people that use it in this country. More languages, however, can't be a bad thing.


  11. Yes its very helpful.
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