There is a “language deficit” in the United States.
Statistics are showing that the United States is lagging behind other countries in their fluency in foreign languages. Less than 20% of Americans are bilingual, while in the countries of the European Union, that value more than doubles to 56%. (And 28% know three!) Despite the demand for learning foreign languages, it seems that the amount of schools offering foreign languages is actually decreasing, mostly due to budget cuts due to No Child Left Behind. The percentage of secondary schools in the U.S. offering foreign languages has dropped from 52% in 1997 to 41% in 2008. Within that 41%, almost all of the schools only offer Western languages—Spanish, French, and German.
The amount of schools offering foreign languages is problematic, but the emphasis on just romantic languages in the schools that do is just as bad. I am not saying that the study of Spanish, French, or German is necessarily a bad thing, learning any second language has been proven to improve the brain’s cognitive function, and even offset memory problems like Alzheimer’s. However, the emphasis on the romantic languages is–dare I say it– out-of-date.
Americans have a tradition of learning these Western languages because of their common roots and economic competition–Western Europe was always our main contest in the race for global power. However, in this globalized era, language learners are better off learning languages known as “critical languages.” The National Security Education program has labeled certain languages as critical because there is a higher demand for trained speakers than the amount of bilingual speakers. Those languages also have political and economic relevance. Some examples include Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Russian, Japanese, Farsi, and Hindi. The deficits in the learning and teaching of these languages “negatively affect our national security, diplomacy, law enforcement, intelligence communities and cultural understanding.”
It seems to me that there is a major inconsistency in the demand for these languages and the action being taken to teach them to Americans. It is also important to note that studying a critical language may not be as appealing to English speakers because of their nature–critical languages tend to have wildly different alphabets and grammar structures. Another aspect to note is that most of the languages deemed critical come from countries with vastly different cultural backgrounds, which may seem daunting to a student. However, this is extremely relevant because the countries where these languages are spoken tend to have key relationships with the United States, and understanding a culture starts with understanding their language. Fostering these diplomatic relationships relies on that understanding.
The National Security Education program and other institutes have responded to the deficit by offering scholarships for students to become fluent in critical languages. This can be an attractive to students trying to decide on a language, who have an option to study one. But the issue stands that too few schools are offering them. Chinese, a popular critical language is being offered in 4% of American schools with foreign languages compared to the 93% offering Spanish.
It may be easier for schools to find teachers fluent in Western languages, but if the goal of education in America is to produce competitive global citizens, than it is wise to invest in critical language education for high school and middle school students.
Some Critical Language Resources:
Critical Language Scholarship through the US Department of State: http://clscholarship.org/
Boren Awards for International Study: http://www.borenawards.org/
Fulbright Critical Language Enhancement Award: http://us.fulbrightonline.org/critical-language-enhancement-awards
Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships Program: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/iegpsflasf/eligibility.html
The Central Intelligence Agency Undergraduate Scholarship: https://www.cia.gov/careers/student-opportunities/undergraduate-scholarship-program.html
University of Pittsburgh’s Less Commonly Taught Language Center: http://www.lctl.pitt.edu/about.html (Pitt offers Arabic, Hindi, Turkish, Swahili, and Farsi as well as Russian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese)
Duquesne Modern Languages and Literature Department: http://www.duq.edu/modern-languages/ (Duquesne offers Swahili, Arabic, Japanese, and Chinese)