Language Education in the US: A Dangerous Deficit

“The United States may be the only nation in the world where it is possible to complete secondary and postsecondary education without any foreign language study whatsoever.”

— Leon Panetta, Former Secretary of Defense

About 10 percent of native-born Americans— individuals who went through our education system— speak a language other than English. Many of these people learned their language from immigrant parents or through an avenue other than our public education system. Compare that to the over 60 percent of Europeans that speak a second language.

It’s not all bad news. In colleges and universities, enrollment is increasing, especially in languages like Arabic and Chinese. Increases in less commonly taught languages (e.g. Farsi, Kiswahili) have been particularly impressive at 31.2% between 2002 and 2006. Not bad at all.

But, through all of this data, there are certain languages that aren’t even part of the conversation. I’m going to list the 24 most widely spoken languages in the world (in order), and I challenge you to identify where they are primarily spoken:

  • Chinese
  • Spanish
  • English
  • Hindi
  • Arabic
  • Portuguese
  • Bengali
  • Russian
  • Japanese
  • Javanese
  • German
  • Lahnda (Panjabi, Seraiki)
  • Telugu
  • Marathi
  • Tamil
  • French
  • Vietnamese
  • Korean
  • Urdu
  • Italian
  • Malay
  • Persian
  • Turkish
  • Oriya

Some of these languages are studied by millions of students (K-16) every year. Some of them are only studied by a handful of eager college students. Some of them are not offered by a single institution.

Language learning is important. But learning Spanish, French and German is not enough. If we want to prepare our kids to communicate with people from around the world, we need to diversify language learning in this country.

I have just finished my third year at a prestigious American university that prides itself on creating spaces for free inquiry and promoting global learning. Here, I’ve made language learning the centerpiece of my education, studying five languages through the formal curriculum and several more in my free time. I’ve been disappointed to learn, however, that 10 of the 24 most widely spoken languages aren’t part of the 30+ languages offered here. More than half of our languages are European, and not a single African language finds itself in our curriculum.

Three years ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told us that we need to ramp up our commitment to foreign language education, not just in European languages— 95% of college students are already studying them— but to these underrepresented languages. These languages are integral to our country’s success in our rapidly globalizing society. He challenged us to address “spotty” language education because, “today more than ever a world-class education requires students to be able to speak and read languages in addition to English.” In 2004, the Modern Language Association reported on what they called “the nation’s language deficit”: Students are not learning languages at a rate that supports our global interests. This remains true even for  those languages labeled critical languages by our State Department.

This isn’t an easy problem to fix; three quarters of states report shortages in qualified foreign language teachers. And, in my experience, many students haven’t even heard of some of the languages from the list above, much less considered studying them. So, if we’re going to change the status quo, we need to renew our commitment to language education— we need to get American students excited about language learning now!

The Student Language Exchange is a first step in bringing diverse languages to the American consciousness. We mobilize international students studying in the US (there are 1.7 million at last count) to bring these underrepresented languages to our college campuses. At our pilot institution, we’re pulling languages like Bengali, Thai, Kiswahili, Bulgarian and Tagalog into the campus conversation. By building spaces for our peers to teach language and share their culture, we are able to get kids excited about learning these often-forgotten languages, and motivate them to use their newfound language skills to do something important. We’ve had former participants teach or study abroad, find passion in international social justice work, change their entire academic trajectory, or even discover their ideal global career following a Student Language Exchange experience.

As we prepare the next generation of world leaders, we need to consider how they will communicate with their peers around the world. How will we learn from one another? How will we expose ourselves to new cultures? How will we build a global conversation that celebrates diversity and encourages global cooperation?

Language education is only one part of the equation, but it’s the first step toward building an open, honest, respectful global society. Yes, English is becoming a global language. But language study is still critical. Encouraging language education encourages cultural awareness and appreciation. Learning another’s language can be a symbol of respect, showing people that you value their culture— even if they’ve learned your language, you are still working to meet them partway.

And not everyone in the world has the opportunity to learn English: Children around the world are denied educational opportunities. If we don’t learn these underrepresented languages, if we wait until the rest of the world learns English, people at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid will continue to be left out of the global conversation.

We cannot continue to put language learning on the backburner— when we scrimp on language learning, we are putting our future on the line. Help us remind our students that global communication is important, and that everyone’s voice— no matter how far or how small— matters.


This post was originally posted on Angela Maier’s blog.

Amelia Friedman

Amelia Friedman

Amelia is the founder and executive director of the Student Language Exchange, an education nonprofit she founded while in college. She graduated magna cum laude from Brown University in May 2014. There, she helped teach a course on leading social ventures, served as a mentor to student entrepreneurs, and was selected as a C.V. Starr Social Entrepreneurship Fellow. An active global education advocate, Amelia has written about language learning for Forbes, the Huffington Post and USA Today. Amelia has been invited to speak about social enterprise and the Student Language Exchange at the U.S. Capitol, SXSW, TEDx, and numerous academic conferences. She is currently a Halcyon Fellow living in Washington, D.C.

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