A Plea for More Foreign Language Learning

The following comments in support of foreign language learning were made by Tiesa M. Graf, President of the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association, in boston.com on June 10, 2012:

In many ways Massachusetts is a national leader in education. However, our children have been let down (“Biting in tongues,’’ Globe West, May 17). Our exemplary Foreign Languages Curriculum Framework, published in 1999, called for all students to become proficient in at least one language in addition to English by graduation.

Even at that time, it was understood that foreign language proficiency was an essential career and life skill.

The Foreign Languages Curriculum Frameworks Review Panel was told that MCAS testing of foreign language proficiency would follow. Further, the 2002 report referenced in the Globe’s article clearly outlines a plan of action to lay the groundwork for statewide assessment (page 17, http://www.doe.mass.edu/frameworks/foreign/report.pdf).

Unfortunately, the recent foreign language enrollment data show that now, fewer students have access to the programming that is outlined in the framework, which calls for language instruction from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12. At the same time, in the past decade, the political and economic reality requires higher levels of proficiency and increased cultural understanding in order to compete with global peers and maintain our national security.

For today’s youth to be competitive in this increasingly global environment, the ability to speak multiple languages is essential. Even those who have no political or international career aspirations will be better equipped to excel in local jobs with additional language skills.

According to the US Department of Commerce, in 2012, more than one in five careers in the United States depends on international trade and commerce.

Though a common excuse of our population’s lack of language skills is “everyone in the world speaks English,” the reality is that 80 percent of the world’s population does not speak English.

The most economical way to ensure that our business people, public servants, armed forces, government and aid workers, and politicians are prepared for the future that faces them is to provide language instruction in K-12 and beyond.

At a US Senate hearing on May 21, “A National Security Crisis: Foreign Language Capabilities in the Federal Government,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, director general of the US Department of State, reported that the Department of Defense estimates it costs $250,000 per person to train employees for positions requiring proficiency in a foreign language.

Foreign language programming in public schools is consistently cut so that more remediation courses can be provided for the MCAS-tested subject areas.

The irony is that foreign language learning supports improved performance in those very areas. Research shows that foreign language study increases creativity and analytical thinking, and improves standardized test scores, among many other benefits.

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, (the “benefits accrue with instruction that is continuous throughout the school year, connected grade to grade, and more frequent than twice per week, adding up to at least 90 minutes per week, at both the elementary and middle school levels.”

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education needs to provide the leadership to districts to make our model framework the reality that it was intended to be more than a decade ago.

Our very own future depends on their action and support.

Tiesa M. Graf

President, Massachusetts Foreign Language Association


South Hadley High School

foreign language department


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