Shaw: American foreign language education is ineffective

Daniel Shaw

America is facing a serious foreign language education crisis. The reality is that American schools are failing to adequately educate American people in foreign languages.

We are falling behind many other countries in terms of foreign language proficiency.

According to the 2017 International and Foreign Language Education Overview released by the Department of Education, “90 percent of Americans don’t speak a second language.” Yet, 75 percent of the world doesn’t speak English, and “one in five American jobs is tied to international trade.”

A 2012 report titled “Europeans and their Languages” requested by the European Commission revealed that over half of Europeans are able to hold a conversation in at least one other language.

We seem to understand the fact that we live in a globalized society in the sense that we are pushing for students to become more culturally competent and aware of diversity. However, our education system still undermines the importance of foreign language proficiency.

For example, Iowa State requires students to satisfy a U.S. Diversity and International Perspectives requirement. However, foreign language requirements are minimal to non-existent.

Many colleges within Iowa State do not have a foreign language requirement but “encourage” students to enroll in courses to prepare for global citizenship. Other colleges like Engineering or Liberal Arts and Sciences only have requirements for students who have not completed two or three years of high school foreign language.

The only programs that require students to continue foreign language studies in higher education are elementary education and early childhood education.

College students are increasingly opting out of studying foreign languages in college. In a 2018 Modern Language Association report titled “Enrollment in Languages other than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education,” it says “enrollments fell 9.2 percent between fall 2013 and fall 2016.”

This lower retention rate for enrollment in foreign language courses illustrates the failure of American schools and society to stress the importance of foreign language proficiency.

This is not helped by many of the recent attempts to shut down immigrants from speaking their native languages. For example, in response to bilingual speaking presidential candidate Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin sends the message that immigrants should “speak American” when they’re here.

Furthermore, pressure to assimilate into American society has also caused many young, potentially bilingual citizens to lose valuable exposure to their second language. A Pew Research Center analysis of 2014 American Community Survey data states that 88 percent of Latinos ages 5 to 17 years old “speak only English at home or say they speak English ‘very well,’” and 37 percent are “growing up in households where only English is spoken.”

In Europe, the approach to foreign language education is entirely different. A Eurostat report titled “Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe” suggested that “pupils are generally between six and nine years old when they start learning a foreign language.”

While European children are being encouraged to learn and speak foreign languages, students in the United States are losing opportunities to be bilingual speakers because of the stigma surrounding languages other than English.

American institutions are also doing too little for our students to be proficient in foreign languages.

It is time for America to become more proficient in foreign languages so we can truly be culturally competent and welcoming of U.S. diversity.