Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Crisis of Language

By Nicholas KayePublished January 1, 2017

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The study of languages in American schools has steadily been declining, leaving students disadvantaged for the increasingly connected global market. Steps must be taken to promote the existing language education programs and investigating alternative language teaching methods, such as dual-language programs.
The study of languages in American schools has steadily been declining, leaving students disadvantaged for the increasingly connected global market. Steps must be taken to promote the existing language education programs and investigating alternative language teaching methods, such as dual-language programs.

    Many debates about the nature of education in America today focus on various measures of American student's competency in STEM subjects and how they compare to those of international students. Many of these measurements indicate that American students are falling behind their international counterparts in mathematical and scientific ability. While this comparison is a major concern for policymakers, there is another equally-concerning problem in American education: the lack of meaningful secondary language education.

    It is becoming increasingly common for students to go through high school without any meaningful investigation of another language. Many times a school's language requirement will only be a few credits or a single year of study, assuming that such a requirement even exists. Several states, such as Illinois and Ohio, do not require any language courses at all in order to graduate from secondary school. This is a stark contrast to the educational experiences in Europe, where nearly all countries mandate study of a second language. According to statistics from the European Union in 2014, over 94% of secondary school students learn English as well as their native language and 23% learn French. American students are falling well behind their international colleagues in this area even before graduating from high school.

    This problem does not only exist in American high schools, but persists into college curricula as well. From 2011 to 2013, the Modern Language Association of America recorded a decrease of about 6% in university language course enrollment nationally. More recent data from 2015 shows that following such a decrease, only 7% of college students were enrolled in a language course. This is a strikingly low percentage of students, especially given the emphasis of many universities on becoming more internationally focused. As universities strive to become increasingly international, they must aim to develop the global skills of their students.

Compounded with the sheer lack of language education is the uniformity of the few language courses students pursue. An overwhelming majority of college students enrolled in language courses focus on a Western European language. According to recent data, over 50% of all language courses are taken in Spanish, with French as the second most common. The most common non-western language taken is Japanese, accounting for only 4.3% of total courses, which ranks sixth out of all languages. This concentration vastly underrepresents a large portion of the world population.

    The world has become increasingly connected and the need for effective international communication, and people able to communicate across borders and cultures, has never been greater. The lack of this linguistic knowledge only adversely affects the prospects for American students as they come into competition with highly-qualified international students. Many Americans believe that knowledge of another language is not necessary as English has become such a universal language in international affairs. However, this thinking has been exposed as flawed as new countries develop into economic superpowers and disrupt the previous world order. Nations such as China, India, and Brazil are set to become leaders in the world economy and we must be able to work alongside them. To not place emphasis on the skills necessary to broker these relationship is to perform a disservice to the next generation.

    In addition to the benefit that learning a second language can have for a student's job prospects, there are also the purely cognitive benefits of becoming bilingual. Many people support STEM programs for this reason; STEM programs promote a different way of thinking and finding creative solutions to complex problems. The acquisition of these skills can have lasting effects on the brain physically, by using parts of the brain that may not be otherwise used. The same occurs during the process of acquiring a second language. Bilingualism has been shown to improve the attention-holding and task-switching capabilities of the brain, as well as decreasing cognitive decline due to aging.

It is evident that the acquisition of a second language is greatly beneficial for students in an academic and professional manner. Thus steps should be taken to ensure the development of language programs in American schools and universities. In addition to advancing the programs that already exist, there should be investigation and experimentation into spreading alternative methods, such as dual-language programs. While these programs are much more immersive and extreme, and unlikely to be widely adopted in the near future, they are one of the more intriguing possible programs. These programs were created to ease in students who did not grow up with English as their first language. But some people also saw it as a method for their English-speaking children to adopt a second language of their own. Investigating the effectiveness of these programs could help to not only better involve non-English speaking students, but also promote the lingual growth of English speaking students and bring those groups closer together.

The acquisition of a second language by American students can have tremendous effects on many aspects of a student's development, from purely academic to social and even physical. A much higher proportion of international students are being taught second, and even third, languages beginning at a young age. Additionally, American students are missing out on the opportunity to explore a culture different from their own and from communicating with millions and even billions of other people. Steps must be taken to remove the idea of "English language exceptionalism" and to recognize the increasing need for language in an increasingly interconnected world.