Foreign language teaching is becoming just Spanish
Stuck at the bottom of the bag of reports I promised to read over the holidays is a survey by Nancy C. Rhodes and Ingrid Pufahl of the Center for Applied Linguistics, entitled "Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools." It has a clear message, part good, part bad.
The good news: Spanish language instruction is growing, something to cheer because we share this hemisphere mostly with people who speak that language. Two of my children are fluent in Spanish and use it in their jobs, which makes me proud and hopeful for the future.
The bad news: all the other languages important to the future of the planet are either losing popularity in our schools, or making only tiny gains from very low levels. The only language in which I have any facility is Mandarin Chinese, certainly a biggie in international affairs but a pygmy in American education. It is taught in only 3 percent of elementary schools and 4 percent of high schools with foreign language programs.
The report does not cover college language programs, where most of us who have tried to learn less popular languages took courses. But it would be nice if we could find a way to build more fluent speakers in the K-12 grades.
Most of the rest of the world has made great strides in improving English language instruction for those ages. Just because our mother tongue has become the leading language of international discourse doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to produce as many bilingual citizens as possible.
According to the survey, Spanish instruction increased from 79 percent of U.S. elementary schools with foreign language programs in 1997 to 88 percent in 2008. In high schools, it has remained stable at 93 percent.
French instruction has declined from 27 to 11 percent at the elementary level and from 64 to 46 percent at the high school level during that same period. The teaching of German has dropped from 5 to 2 percent in elementary schools and from 24 to 14 percent in high schools. Latin instruction rose from 3 to 6 percent in elementary schools and dropped from 20 to 13 percent in high schools.
In high schools, Russian went from 3 to 0.3 percent and Japanese from 7 to 3 percent. Chinese and Arabic are on an upswing, but are still hard to find. Chinese went from 1 to 4 percent and Arabic from zero to 0.6 percent.
This is not our greatest educational problem these days, far from it. We are still producing many young people with superior linguistic abilities. But overall, we don't look so good, particularly when compared to the Europeans. Besides the 13 percent of citizens of EU countries who are native English speakers, another 38 percent are conversant in our language.
| December 30, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Center for Applied Linguistics, decline of less popular languages, foreign language instruction, rise of Spanish
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