Story by Karen Ann Cullotta for The Chicago Tribune, January 18, 2011:
Despite budget cuts to foreign language programs at many U.S. schools, the study of Mandarin has jumped by almost 200 percent in three years, according to a recent study funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Still, the study also found that just 32 percent of students in grades 6 to 12 nationwide are enrolled in a foreign language program, leaving the U.S. behind many countries. (In the European Union, for example, 94 percent of secondary level students study a language other than their native tongue.)
Indeed, educators often are making tough decisions these days — for example, opting to add new languages such as Mandarin and Arabic while scaling back on more traditional linguistic stalwarts. Some foreign language advocates view this as a troubling trend.
“I categorically reject the notion expressed by anybody who is cutting languages like German and French, and implying they are not essential,” said Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, based in Alexandria, Va. “Our country is in the grips of short-term thinking that has spilled over from corporate leaders. We do long-term damage to both our country and our children when we whipsaw between what languages are important, because language learning lasts a lifetime.”
Lovejoy said that if the U.S. does not address its “language deficit,” it will be at an overwhelming disadvantage with respect to its economy and national security.
The influx of Chinese language programs that debuted during the last three years, while noteworthy, added up to only 60,000 studying Mandarin nationwide.
Still, Mandarin language teachers such as Grace Chang Heebner are encouraged by the burgeoning popularity of Chinese language programs in the U.S.
“Parents are encouraging their children to learn the language so they can prepare for future jobs,” said Chang Heebner, who teaches at Westlane Middle School in Indianapolis. “Having the chance to share my language and culture has been an amazing opportunity.”
The top four foreign languages taught in grades K-12 of U.S. public schools for the 2007-08 school year:
Spanish: 72.1 percent
French: 14.1 percent
German: 4.4 percent
Latin: 2.3 percent
Source: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages