Common Core's Orphaned Subjects: Foreign Language

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If you said “foreign language” (which you probably didn't) you would be right.

There was a time when foreign languages were a top priority in American education. One of the earliest major bills passed by the fledgling Department of Health, Education and Welfare was the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The Soviet Union had sent Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, into orbit the year before. This success launched the U.S. government into a panic over America's lagging efforts in the space race. The legislation they enacted in response promoted subjects that would help America catch up with their Cold War adversaries. Along with math, engineering, and the usual suspects, the bill supported extra emphasis on foreign language in the form of scholarships and loans to students and grants to public schools.

The reasoning behind the language push was that in order to understand the Soviets, we had to be able to understand their language. Furthermore, a lot of research and progress in space exploration and atomic energy up to that time had been led by Russian and German scientists. Learning their languages, as well as others, would enhance international cooperation.

A Familiar Story

The Cold War and the space race are long gone, and the emphasis on foreign language in American education disappeared along with them. STEM, Common Core, and other standardized measures have largely pushed language out of the curriculum. It's a familiar story: school districts, teachers, and parents want scarce education resources to be spent on subjects their students are tested on. Everything else is expendable.

Yet there is a tremendous demand for bilingual or multilingual speakers in the job market today, particularly for key government positions and international business opportunities. Currently, only seven percent of college students in America are enrolled in a foreign language course. Less than one percent of American adults are proficient in a foreign language they studied in school. This is despite the fact that one in five American jobs is tied to international trade. Having a foreign language skill is a tremendous career enhancer that the educational bureaucracy seems to ignore.

In the global war for talent, American employers rely increasingly on imported hires because America is not investing enough time or money in language education. According to Kirsten Brecht-Baker, founder of Global Professional Search, “It can't just be about specialization [in engineering or medicine or technology] anymore. They have to communicate in the language.” The Joint National Committee on Languages reports that the language industry itself “employs more than 200,000 Americans at an annual median wage of $80,000.”

The Global Job Market

As Clayton Lewis writes in U.S. News & World Report, “Graduates face escalating competition as millions of recent job entrants hit the market from expanding middle-class economies such as India, China and Brazil. Of all the competencies that have the potential to set young Americans apart as they seek jobs, languages are most often overlooked…. The global job market will include a very crowded field of well-educated graduates from Europe, China, Mexico and many other countries who have mastered English on top of their mother tongue. The reality of the 21st century job market is that Americans will be competing for a job where…. they will be compared to a multilingual candidate.”

The lack of available courses has produced a shortage of qualified teachers that makes it tough to expand language programs even where educators are willing to support them. Military language instruction is especially compromised, since the average foreign language instructor fails to meet military proficiency standards. Furthermore, the military is scrambling to find experts in less popular languages. Want guaranteed job security? Learn a language that military and government organizations consider high priority. Most language students study a Western European language because those are the countries they're most likely to visit, and they are the cultures that informed America's literary history. In 2013 there were about 198,000 American college students taking a French class and 64 taking Bengali, even though Bengali has twice as many native speakers as French. More people speak Javanese than German.

Another strike against foreign language study is that in a world of instant gratification, learning a language takes time. Skills are built over months or years. Students can't push a button and get the answer. Also, in today's competitive academic environment, there is anecdotal evidence that students sometimes pass on the foreign language option because it might lower their GPA.

The Language of the Internet

Americans have it easier than most. Compared to the rest of the world, ours is a big country insulated from foreign-speaking neighbors. Unlike, say, Switzerland, where daily life may require fluency in three languages, we can go a lifetime without having to learn another tongue. Also, in the information age, English has emerged as the first truly global language. Almost 26 percent of all the world's Internet traffic is in English. Chinese is second with 20.9%, Spanish third with 7.6%, and Arabic fourth at 5.0%. The rest of the world's 7,000 languages register below 4% each. (The top ten make up 78% of all Internet traffic.)

More than half the population of Europe speaks two or more languages. In America, only eighteen percent of people know a language other than English. This is a deficit education policy makers are allowing to get worse every. As Forbes magazine observes, “We need diplomats, intelligence and foreign policy experts, politicians, military leaders, business leaders, scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, historians, artists, and writers who are proficient in languages other than English.”

Enriching Lives

Not only does foreign language study improve job prospects, it enriches the lives of students willing to take on the challenge. Educators should be encouraging students to give it a try; instead, too many schools are steering them away from the idea. Like so many of the academic subjects pushed aside by standardized testing and misplaced priorities, foreign language enhances our enjoyment of the world we live in. Speaking and reading another person's language helps us better understand the cultures and viewpoints of our international neighbors – everything from, “So that's how this equations works!” to “Do you come here often?”

The next generation of Americans face a “highly competitive, tightly interconnected world.” Knowing a foreign language is one of the surest ways to gain a competitive advantage. It isn't an add-on skill or an elective, but rather an essential component of a modern education. Up until the nineteenth century many scholars learned Latin so that no matter where they lived they could communicate with their peers around the world. It's ironic that in a time when information flies all around us at the speed of light, Americans can only understand about twenty-six percent of it.

It's a deficit we can and should correct. And I beg you, let's do it without going back to Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. I'd much rather learn Bengali and have people knocking down my door with job offers.

Who's with me?

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