Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What Is the State of Language Education in the (U.S.) Union?

In last night"s "State of the Union" address, U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized the need to improve education in the U.S. This blog is not the appropriate venue to discuss education policy per se, but while President Obama listed the teaching of science and math as lagging behind other countries, foreign language classes were not mentioned.

That seems curious, given that high school graduates in most industrialized countries have learned significantly more foreign languages at a higher level than even most U.S. college graduates. When I graduated high school in Austria ("Abitur") in the 1970s, I had studied English for 8 years and French for 4 years, for 3-5 classroom hours per week, per language. The only reason I didn't have to take a third language (Latin most likely) was that I attended a math and science high school. Nowadays, English instruction starts in elementary school.

This type of curriculum is rather typical of most of Europe, as well as other industrialized nations. Almost everywhere the first foreign language -- frequently English -- is started by 5th grade at the very latest, with at least one more foreign language required for high school graduation, except for specialized technical schools. In most public schools in the U.S., by contrast, instruction in a foreign language doesn't start until high school and then only encompasses one language for 3 years,taught 3-4 times per week.

Business books and articles here in the U.S. keep emphasizing that knowledge of other languages and cultures is key to breaking into foreign markets. Studies on language acquisition have proven time and again a foreign language is acquired much more easily at a young age. So if improvements in education are supposed to make the U.S. more competitive in the world market in the long term, as President Obama said yesterday, why is there no major investment in foreign language instruction?

And what can we, as language professionals, contribute to making foreign language instruction more of a centerpiece of U.S. education? Speaking another language, after all, not only makes communication easier, but it also opens the door to better understanding other people's cultures and views – and that seems to me is a worthwhile goal in and of itself.

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