Efforts at Building Multilingualism in America

The following is from en.radio86.com, December 18, 2010:

Ms. Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), told Radio86 about the recent efforts in the United States to encourage its young citizens to learn foreign languages.

In the past, people in the United States, a relatively isolated country both geographically and culturally, have not seen much point in learning foreign languages. As a result, foreign language requirements in American schools have been quite minimal. In the 1990’s, for example, a student in middle school was typically only expected to take one six-week course of a foreign language. In high school, the requirement was often only two semesters of Spanish, German or French, which is nowhere enough to make a learner proficient in the languages in question.

Abbott, who is a former high school teacher of Spanish and Latin, worked as the foreign language coordinator in the Fairfax County public school district prior to working for ACTFL. Thus, she has valuable insight into the shortfalls as well as the potential of the foreign language programs in American schools.


A terrifying wake-up call


The events of Sept 11, 2001 were a shocking reminder of how national boundaries cannot prevent foreign terrorists from penetrating American soil. Abbott says that, in addition to scarring the minds of every American for the rest of their lives, the day also marked a kind of a turning point for American politics on many levels, including its national policies on foreign language education.

“There is a change in interest. It’s mostly coming from two areas, I would say: First of all, at the federal or national level, certainly in the area of national interest and national security. We realized on September 11th, 2001 that we were caught really short in terms of our linguistic capabilities and that that was a serious linguistic gap in this country, and so, since then, there’s been an effort on the part of the federal government to upgrade our ability and capability in the area of knowing other languages and understanding other cultures. We’re certainly not where we need to be at this point, but there at least is interest and talk and funding behind some programs that will try to boost those capabilities.”

Parents of children adopted from China have been pushing for more Chinese language education in American schools. (Image: Radio86)
Parents of children adopted from China have been pushing for more Chinese language education in American schools. (Image: Radio86)The terrible events of September 11 were not the only catalyst for improving foreign language education in the US. Parents of school-aged children have also been actively pushing for schools to offer their children more comprehensive foreign language programs. Nevertheless, Abbott says that there is still a long way to go before all students in American schools would be required to learn a foreign language.

“We see a lot of interest on the part of parents of younger children. I know that when they look at the future of their children and they think about what the world is going to look like for those children as they enter the workforce and how important it’s going to be to be able to do business and to build relationships with people around the world, they have started to demand that the elementary schools teach languages. I feel it’s kind of a bottom-up, grassroots effort, on the part of parents, but then there’s this top-down effort on the federal level as well.”


PISA says it all


The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an internationally standardized assessment of the proficiencies of students in various subjects in more than 70 countries and economies. The results of the survey give an indication of the strengths and shortfalls of public school systems around the globe. In terms of foreign languages, countries with more than one official language tend to perform better in the assessment, compared to monolingual countries such as the US.

“We came in, I think 26th or 27th. Certainly the top ten nations have that multilingualism or some kind of language requirement for students in school, so we’re using those results to point to how important those benefits are to students who get that early start in languages, the cognitive benefits and also the benefit of increasing academic achievement.”

As the demand for foreign language teaching grows, measures have been taken to encourage college students to study to become teachers.

“(One) way that the federal government is trying to boost our language capabilities and that is to have loan forgiveness for students who enter college and declare that they want to become teachers of languages. So, there are scholarships available for students who want to go in that direction and that’s an area we also know we need to work on.”


Forays into new languages


Due to the proximity and influence of Latin American culture, the leading foreign language in the US has always been Spanish.

“At the K12 level, Spanish is certainly the leading language, it always has been. Of the students enrolled in languages about 72 percent are enrolled in Spanish. Then there’s a big drop to the next language, which is French, where we have about 14 percent of our students enrolled. The next one is German with 4.43 percent and then Latin, 2.3 percent. So those are our top four languages. Spanish, French, German and Latin. And then we see other languages, certainly on the rise is Chinese, Mandarin, and we’re seeing a lot more students and a lot more schools interested in teaching Mandarin , they’re looking at the next great competitive economy and I believe that China has gotten so much press about being that economy that we’re seeing schools attempting to expand their language offerings and Chinese is probably the number one language that they’re adding.”


We are a monolingual country – that’s something that we’re trying to change – but historically, our interest in specific languages has come about from perceived challenges to the US economy, or real challenges to the US economy.Marty Abbott

Contrary to what most people might think, Chinese is not a completely new addition to the language selection in American schools.


“We have some history of that at a very minimal aspect beginning really in the 80s even, but very very small. It really started almost in the year 2002, 2003, we started to see more interest in Chinese, and really it’s been in the past three to four years where we’ve seen the big boom. That’s been also associated with a lot of interest on the part of the Chinese government in promoting Chinese in this country. We see a lot of support from Hanban, the Chinese Ministry of Education and their efforts to promote Chinese as well – that has certainly had an impact.”

While Chinese used to be mostly taught in schools on the west coast, where most of the Chinese immigrants to the US were living, its popularity has grown to encompass the entire country, both urban and rural areas included. This is explained both by the interest American-born descendants of Chinese immigrants have for the language, but also by the interest of parents of children adopted from China, Abbott says.

“But what’s really been interesting is how students of all abilities and interests have kind of taken to Chinese and really become interested in it. I think it’s different enough that students feel that it’s challenging and engaging. One area of critical importance is how doable learning this language is by English speakers. I think that where we have successful programs you’ll find teachers who are making this very doable for students. And so, we have students increasing their proficiency at a rate that you would find very interesting because people look at Chinese as a challenging language to learn.”

According to official statistics from 2007-2008, enrollment in Chinese had grown in almost all states in the US, giving a strong indication of the popularity of the Chinese language among students.

“We are a monolingual country – that’s something that we’re trying to change – but historically, our interest in specific languages has come about from perceived challenges to the US economy, or real challenges to the US economy. For example, in the late 50s, when the Russians launched Sputnik, and we thought we were losing the ‘space race,’ the federal government provided a lot of support for learning Russian. So there was a proliferation of Russian programs around the United States. And then in the 80s, when the Japanese economy was so strong, we saw the same thing happen with Japanese programs and a lot of interest on the part of the Japanese government because their economy was so strong. I think we’re seeing similar things with Chinese in the 21st century. We’re seeing that people are reading about China, they’re learning about China through events like the Olympics in 2008, and they’re thinking – ‘wow, if I want to be competitive in the 21st century, I better understand the languages of the people that we’re going to be working with, we’re going to be selling our products to, we’re going to be negotiating with,’ and so I think people are thinking it’s really the current language to be proficient in.”



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