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Foreign Languages and U.S. Economic Competitiveness

by Edward Alden
June 26, 2012

Teacher Kennis Wong points to Chinese characters on a board at Broadway Elementary School in Los Angeles, California (Lucy Nicholson/Courtesy Reuters). Teacher Kennis Wong points to Chinese characters on a board at Broadway Elementary School in Los Angeles, California (Lucy Nicholson/Courtesy Reuters).


Americans are lousy at learning foreign languages. We all know the historical reasons – the United States was long a big, largely monolingual country with a fairly self-sufficient economy. U.S. economic and military might (and that of the British Empire before) spread the English language across the world, so that English became the global second language and the de facto language of international business.

But in the latest Renewing America Policy Innovation Memorandum, A Languages For Jobs Initiative, scholars from the Center for Applied Linguistics argue that Americans in the future are unlikely to get by so well on English alone. Nearly 30 percent of the U.S. economy is now wrapped up in international trade, and half of U.S. growth since the official end of the recession in 2009 has come from exports. The fastest-growing economies in the world are not English speaking. And as Brad Jensen of Georgetown University has shown, the most promising export sector for the United States is business services, which often requires face-to-face interactions with foreign customers. As the authors write: “[F]uture U.S. growth will increasingly depend on selling U.S. goods and services to foreign consumers who do not necessarily speak English.”

Yet American students are woefully unprepared to do that. Foreign language education is actually on the decline in the United States. Only 15 percent of primary schools teach foreign languages, even though it is much easier to learn one by starting very young. Even in middle and high schools, foreign languages are generally optional and not required for graduation. Not surprisingly, just one in five public school students currently studies a foreign language.

The authors argue that the priority of foreign language instruction in education must be increased. This includes proper assessment and accountability, and the development of more immersion programs, which have been shown to be the most effective form of language instruction. The United States should take advantage of its large immigrant population of foreign language speakers to expand and strengthen immersion programs.

Some states are catching on, following Utah which has long been a leader in immersion education. Last year, Delaware Governor Jack Markell launched the Governor’s World Language Expansion Initiative, which will create new immersion education opportunities. Governor Markell argues that multinational companies in his state – of which there are many thanks to business-friendly laws and regulations –can’t find the foreign language speakers they need. Three Delaware school districts will launch Chinese and Spanish programs next year, and state has set a goal of 20 immersion programs with over 2,500 students by 2015 and over 6,000 students by 2020.

Increasing overseas tourism to the United States – which has been an Obama administration priority – has also underscored the importance of language skills. With many more Chinese and Brazilian tourists, for instance, hotels and retailers will pay a premium for staff with the language skills to communicate with those visitors.

While much of the competitiveness discussion concerns the performance of the U.S. economy, the real issue at stake is the competitiveness of future generations of Americans. U.S. companies will find the personnel they need to compete in export markets, and are perfectly happy to hire English-speaking foreigners rather than foreign language-speaking Americans. Americans who speak English alone will increasingly face a disadvantage in competing for some of the best jobs in business.

Certainly language is only one part of the set of skills that U.S. students will need to thrive in an increasingly global economy. Study abroad, foreign travel where possible and familiarity with other cultures are all important parts of the mix. But the ability to communicate in one or more foreign languages is clearly key.

Foreign language instruction needs to stop being an afterthought in the K-12 curriculum and instead become a top priority alongside math, science and the humanities.

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by Carmela Griffo

    Your article supports what World Language teachers have been promoting for years. I am dumbfounded by so-called educators who consistently cut WL programs in favor of other disciplines. The lack of emphasis on learning another language and culture is absolutely detrimental to our students. We as Americans will always be limited by a mono-linguistic approach to the global education of our children.

  • Posted by Nancy Trier-Metzger

    Foreign language education teaches students not only how to speak and understand another language but also helps students gain an awareness and understanding of other cultures. The importance of this education cannot be underestimated as businesses and the U.S. government have often been at a disadvantage and even embarrassed by a lack of comprehension of another country’s culture and customs.

  • Posted by Stefan Stackhouse

    We’ve been going backwards. In the 1950s and 60s, high schools would have either a vocational or an academic track. You needed an academic diploma to get into college, so any kid even slightly above average in intelligence was pressured by parents and teachers to do the academic track. To earn an academic diploma, you had to pass several years of a foreign language. Just about every high school offered French, Spanish, and German, or at least two of the three. Once you got into college, you had to pass out of two years of a foreign language for just about any degree. Students who had done well in high school through four whole years of a language could usually test out of one or two semesters, but would still have to take at least one or two semesters to finish the requirement.

    Now, so many of these requirements have apparently been dropped. Huge mistake.

  • Posted by Kathleen Stein-Smith

    It is interesting to note that over the past 50 years postsecondary enrollment in a language other than English has dropped by 50% — from 16% to 8%, according to the MLA, at a time when globalization has made language skills increasingly needed for national security and global competitiveness.

    Is it only coincidence that the US ranking on the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index continues to decline, with the US currently in 5th place, outranked by multilingual Switzerland and Singapore?

  • Posted by Online English Teacher

    So, not only is the rest of the world in a rush to learn English, but Americans also had better get busy and learn another language or two. And at the same time, the face of education in general is changing fast as it moves online. Great time to be in the online language-learning industry!

  • Posted by Curtis Valentine

    Even for young adults, learning a foreign language has never been important than right now. For those who are outside the boundaries of a language immersion program, I recommend we highlight the impact of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer on learning a language. I was able to learn a foreign language through being immersed in an environment where little English was spoken.

  • Posted by Drew Johnson

    We do have K through 12 programs in Chinese and Spanish in our school. Even though the community has been supportive, it has taken a committment to overcome skepticism from within our staff. We are increasingly looking at Foreign Language as being a required part of our Humanities program along with Social Studies and English Language Arts.

  • Posted by John Stone

    As an English-speaking parent trying to raise trilingual kids in Spain, I find a great deal to envy in dual-language immersion programmes in both the US and Canada.

    Here in Barcelona policy makers have avoided the selective admissions policies which are needed to factor the language skills of newcomers–and their children–into the foreign language-learning equation. Partial foreign-language immersion programmes (using, say, English to teach music, phys. ed., or math) use the same admission criteria as all other schools and programmes: the city’s substantial English-, French- and German-speaking communities lack the means to ensure that their children are enrolled in the few programmes where their skills, as heritage speakers, would contribute to the programmes’ success. Moreover, there is no special university training in place for immersion programme teachers, almost none of whom is a native speaker of English; and the Catalan education authorities refuse to recognise English as a heritage language (though ten other languages are recognised as such, and young speakers of those languages may enrol in after-school programmes).

    Such patterns are fairly common all over Mediterranean Europe: policy seems formulated to turn the polyglot offspring of newcomers from elsewhere in the EU into monolingual and largely mono-cultural pupils. Yet in US and Canadian cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Cambridge MA, New York, Vancouver, and Edmonton, dual-language immersion programmes use heritage speakers of foreign languages as resource, as means of ensuring that immersion is both academic and social.

    I don’t mean to suggest that education policy all over Europe limits foreign-language teaching to three hours per week of instruction with a teacher who is her- or himself a non-native speaker. Many jurisdictions benefit from imaginative and flexible policy. State systems in much of northern and eastern Europe offer bright students a chance to complete the final two years of secondary education in English (see for a map of English-medium IB schools in Europe, outside the English-speaking countries). But the odd mix of erratic and rigid policy in Spain has not yet produced such opportunities. Indeed, as the Government of Spain supports dual-language programmes in the US and Canada, a young bilingual Canadian-Spanish or American-Spanish dual national would be better off in Edmonton or Portland than in Barcelona or Madrid.

  • Posted by Claudia Baldwin

    The Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network (MAIN) supports this initiative in the USA and is advocating for language immersion teachers who are non-native speakers of English. New licensure evaluation procedures need to be revised, given that non-native English speaking teachers have difficulty passing the MTLE English test and therefore, limiting the possibility of teaching in our state. Minnesota, USA is a leader in language immersion education with 63 language immersion schools teaching Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Hmong, Dakota, Ojibwe and other languages.
    Visit us in Facebook at Minnesota Advocates for Immersion Network

  • Posted by Matthew Hall

    30 million Americans are fluent in Spanish without stuying it. Doesn’t it count for something that areas of the U.S. have become bilingual regional societies?

  • Posted by Alejandro A. Rhode

    Whether the rest of the world already speaks English or is capable of learning is of no importance to the topic; it is our responsibility to form professionals with a broad cultural knowledge in order to compete in this globalized world. Encouraging the students of our country to try to learn foreign languages should be a priority because it improves the understanding of different cultures, enriches individuals’ human capital and makes communication easier. Although it is possible to learn about other cultures in English, without being able to interact with other people in their own language the knowledge about that particular culture is very likely to remain superficial. Human capital determines an individual’s value as an employee; employers tend to seek for potential workers with some sort of foreign language skill and/or international experience for higher level positions, especially when the companies expand overseas; even if the meetings and daily tasks are conducted in English, much of the office and corridor talk will take place in the language of that specific country and not being proficient in that language will put the employee in disadvantage, knowing a foreign language is likely to increase your chances of being hired/promoted because it increases the employees “value”. We improve interpersonal communication by breaking language barriers; being able to communicate with non-nationals, and even while being out of the country may build up an individual’s confidence and encourage him to share ideas with other English speakers more often.

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