Something to Talk About – Foreign Languages in American Schools

Did you know that more than 200 million children in China study English, a compulsory subject in primary school?

How many American children in primary school study any second language at all?

If you guessed not many, you are right. There are 54 million elementary school children in the United States. Only 31% of American elementary schools, including both public and private schools, report teaching foreign languages at all. Of those who teach languages, 79% of the programs are just an introduction – they are not designed to help children become fluent in the language. But hey, we can have fun with menus in restaurants, translating for mom and dad, especially with the 24,000 American children who are studying Chinese.

But that’s elementary school. Language study should be more intense, more serious, and more available in American high schools, right? Surprise! In high school, only 44% of American high school students are enrolled in a foreign language class. Most are studying Spanish or French. Less than 1% combined study Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Farsi, or Urdu. Yet, these are increasingly common languages in global business and diplomacy.

They’re not talking one from column A and two from column B in China. They are serious. English is the global language of business, of diplomacy, of global commerce. And the Chinese intend to be ready to speak it to their best advantage.

The United States has never been strong at encouraging the gift of global gab. But now the Bush administration would like to change that. It seems that in the vital areas of diplomacy, there is a shortage of qualified people who can speak foreign languages. Many Americans are bilingual English/Spanish, but the state department needs people who can speak Chinese, Korean, Arabic, and Russian.

Much has been touted in the media lately about the administration’s initiatives in the areas of math and science, but there is also an initiative to train teachers and provide grants under the National Security Language initiative.

In Fiscal Year 2007, the Department of Education budget will include $57 million for the development of teaching foreign languages, a $35 million increase over 2006. $24 million will create incentives for teaching and studying these critical need languages. Additionally, a language clearinghouse for teachers and teacher to teacher seminars are planned, so that language departments will have the resources to expand their offerings. The administration would like to create a Language Teacher Corp of 1000 new language teachers in our nation’s schools.

The world is getting smaller all the time. Waiting for the English translation could put the next generation at a serious disadvantage. Let’s give ’em something to talk about!

Zai hui! (I think that means see you next time!)