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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.

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By Jay Mathews  | 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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Mandarin is offered in a number of school districts here, and seems to be the fastest growing language in terms of interest. Also lots of kids, including mine, take it in weekend Chinese schools.

Posted by: bkmny | December 30, 2009 6:42 AM | Report abuse

Percentages of students _actually selecting to receive instruction in particular languages_ are important. But the "percentages of students for whom instruction in particular languages is available" are in 2009 obviously all 100 - instruction in just about any language in the world is available to just about any student throughout the high-tech world. Foreign language promotion institutes on both sides of the Atlantic do good work but also really need to wake up and smell the online coffee.

Posted by: eriksyring | December 30, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

First of all, congratulations Jay on being recognized for an Upton Sinclair Award. You deserve it.

As a retired Air Force member, I spent 17 of my 23 years of service stationed overseas. In my experience, English has become the de facto language of the world. I saw several Europeans communicate in a variety of languages - German, French, Spanish - but by and large they all also spoke English. They do set a great example for America to follow. Namely, learn as many languages (or even bits of languages) as you can to better communicate on the global stage. There's nothing worse than an "ugly American" who expects the entire world to understand what's said in English. Besides, who wants someone to talk about them behind their back - right in front of their face!

Posted by: scottgomer | December 30, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

For scottgomer: thanks for the very kind message, and i agree with your comment about languages.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 30, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

"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. "

First, where is the basis for your "should"? Why is it so necessary for us to have bilingual citizens? Cites on the economic value to the country.

Second, what priority should this take?

Foreign language instruction is curriculum as morality play. Elites think that American hegemony would be moderated if more of our citizens were able to stand in the shoes of other countries throughout the world and sympathize with their feelings (as elites like to fancy themselves doing), and what better way to do that then make them speak another language? Never mind that there's no evidence that required Spanish instruction makes people more sympathetic to Mexico--it's the thought that counts. Besides, who wants to argue that language instruction is a waste of time and money?

(raises hand)

Me. For all but the motivated and/or those with aptitude, foreign language instruction is a monumental waste of time. It's also a ridiculously unfair way of privileging one URM (Hispanics) over another (blacks) as Hispanics have a big advantage in admissions tests. Of course, it's also privileging Japanese, Chinese and Koreans over Vietnamese and whites as well.

We should dump it.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 30, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Chinese is important in international relations RIGHT NOW, but 20 years from now? My bet is on Brazilian Portuguese.

Anyway, when my child was enrolled in a foreign language program the teacher demanded that we read to him for 20 minutes per day in that foreign language in order for it to stick.

Cal, you live in a fantasy world of your own making. I have seen not one iota of anything you describe and I would suggest that you write up your theory and take it to a doctor, clergy or therapist and ask them to tell you what they think your ideas mean- and then LISTEN to what they have to say. It is, to put it mildly, divorced from reality.

Posted by: bbcrock | December 30, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I think Chinese will only grow in importance. First of all, English is not widely spoken in China, despite our perception - we see only the elite who come here to study. While there is a lot of interest in learning English in China, the quality of instruction is often poor. In any case, sheer numbers will mean that Chinese will be a very very important language. If you haven't been to China, it is hard to appreciate the hugeness of the population there.

Posted by: bkmny | December 30, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse


Since I didn't "describe" anything, but rather asserted a state of mind and value system, I suggest you go find a well-educated thirteen year old to explain my post to you.

And in case you can only find a ten year old, I'll simplify my language and drop the irony:

The educational value of foreign language instruction is assumed, not proven. It is foisted upon the populace by a well-meaning elite who think that Americans shouldn't become conceited about the dominance of the English language, and pretend that other countries are important, too.

In other countries, the primary "foreign language" learned is English, which is done for economic reasons, not moral betterment. It's only in America that bilingualism is assumed to be something that all students have to at least pretend to.

Consider England. The Brits speak English, so they don't have to learn that in schools. Foreign language instruction blows hot and cold in England, but it's never been a big deal like it is here.

Here's an interesting question: What do England's major universities require in terms of admissions and foreign language study? My guess is that British universities have no foreign language requirement, but either way, I'd like to know.

No, foreign language study is an assumed, not proven, good. I don't see why all Americans should have to make obeisance to the "bilingual is best" mantra. It's an opinion, not a fact.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 30, 2009 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Actually, Cal_Lanier, there are proven cognitive benefits to understanding a foreign language. For example, Bialystok and Martin showed that bilingual children have better inhibitory control for ignoring perceptual information. Enhanced literacy as well.

It would appear that you are the person who has assumed that there has been no research into the impact of bilingualism on development and education. You are the one making unsupported assertions such as it's an elite foisting it upon American schools.

I'd also suggest that you avoid making generalizations about the U.K. Otherwise, you might know that dual language studies are the norm in Wales.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 30, 2009 3:28 PM | Report abuse

@ Cal_Lanier:

I'm curious to know how "Hispanics have a big advantage on admissions tests." Really? Which admissions tests would those be? I'll take your answer with or without irony, whichever you prefer. Thanks!

Posted by: beth78 | December 30, 2009 11:17 PM | Report abuse

I cannot speak for all counties, but some systems offer a by-pass exam for students who can fluently read and write another language. I wonder if that messes with local stats on who studies what. A lot of our Spanish-speaking students cannot read and write it fluently, whereas the students of some other languages (like Arabic and Mandarin) they are taught to speak, read and write from an early age. Thus, they are excempt from instruction because the test gives them enough high school credit to graduate.
At this year's excemption exam, the top language was Spanish, but number 2? Korean.

Posted by: zeptattoo | December 31, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

As Army Brats whose father did not allow our family to speak English publically in volatile communities for fear of kidnapping, my sisters and I became polyglots. As many formal studies assert, I can personally testify that learning more than one language promotes success in many other academic subjects, as well as a greater understanding of our own mother tongue. As teacher and a mother, I see the benefits every day of learning and studying foreign languages in my children. And one does not need be an elite to enjoy these benefits, although language facility will lead to great job opportunities and a better standard of living. I don't understand those who deride the study of foreign languages. Are they simply afraid of being left out or talked about in a language other than English? Get over it, do yourself a favor and start learning something new!

Posted by: CitizenJulia | December 31, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Jay, Thanks for your coverage of this topic.

Unfortunately, I believe your optimistic intro stating that Spanish instruction has grown is a misinterpretation of the findings of the study. As you state later, Spanish instruction represents a greater PERCENTAGE of language instruction in schools that offer foreign language instruction. However, because there has been a large drop in the percentage of schools that do, Spanish instruction in elementary and middle schools has actually DECREASED.

(As the executive summary states on the first page: "The percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased significantly from 1997 to 2008: from 31% to 25% of all elementary schools (Figure 1) and from 75% to 58% of all middle schools.")

The big (and discouraging) news, is the decline in students given the opportunity to study ANY second language, and this at a time when we have (supposedly) come to recognize the cultural, social and intellectual, as well as economic and strategic, 'value' of other languages.

Posted by: jenny15 | January 5, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

So actually, it's all bad news.

Posted by: jenny15 | January 5, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I speak Russian, which is a less commonly taught language or LCTL and must say mastering it was the best decision of my life. It has rewarded me with amazing friends from the Slavic world, a great profession, a love of learning, and the chance to pass my knowledge on to the next generation of Americans, which will be working with a variety of countries dependent on this language. I found Spanish and French somewhat simple, but when I stumbled into Russian, it was a perfect challenge and a linguistic match. People who gravitate toward Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic probably feel the same way.

My vote also is for students to try something different. Spanish doesn't take very long to learn, so it's an easy investment. LCTLs, however, require a real tenacity and a different work ethic. Kids studying LCTLs can pretty much write their own career ticket as having those linguistic skills are an advantage. The hard part is that study of an LCTL really needs to begin in 5th or 6th grade.

Our school systems should have students start study of LCTLs early, then let them add Spanish or French later, based on the number of contact hours needed for mastery. LCTLs require more contact hours for mastery than traditional foreign languages, yet it is Spanish and French that get the most contact time with students as they prepare for high school graduation. LCTL instruction has to be compressed into three or four year programs as a result, which limits skills. It would be great if someone at The Washington Post could write an article about contact hours needed for mastery of certain languages. There is all sorts of data out there to show how much time is needed to acquire basic proficiency, mastery, etc.

Fortunately, Congress is beginning to wake up to this reality by providing funding in support of LCTL training and the U.S. Government is very keen now on getting students started in LCTL study much earlier in the K-16 pipeline. It's a great time to be studying Farsi, Korean, Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, or Turkish and learning that language well.

Posted by: emmaparker | January 5, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

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