The Importance of Requiring High School Students to Learn a Foreign Language

There is an increasing need to focus on foreign language education in this country. Government officials, business leaders, and educators have expressed concerns about the lack of foreign language competence among the American people. The United States is the only country where you can complete secondary or higher education with no foreign language study. The act of offering, or sometimes requiring, a year or two of foreign language study isn’t nearly enough to prepare our children for the world we live in. As the world becomes smaller with the advent of new communications technology, we have to focus more attention towards making sure our children are prepared for the future, which is going to include even more emphasis on foreign language skills.

In 1979, the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies devoted a year to an intensive evaluation of the state of foreign language and international studies. The Commission confirmed persistent problems in foreign language instruction, from inadequate training of teachers to insufficient administrative support. The problem was found to extend through all levels of education. According to Leon Panetta, a former White House Chief of Staff under President Clinton, there were sixty-five recommendations from the Commission, most of which have not been implemented.

Depending on political and social climates, the emphasis on foreign language and international studies has risen and fallen. During the 1960’s and early-1970’s, elementary and secondary schools were frequently forced to re-evaluate their curriculum due to budget cuts. With the effect foreign language studies largely difficult to assess, parents and educators determined that students gained nothing the learning experience. It didn’t take long for foreign language instruction in schools to decline.

During the late-1970’s and 1980’s, there was a resurgence of interest in foreign language programs, partially due to the concern of coping with the various immigrant groups now in the country. Parents and educators also found new information on the effects of foreign language studies. The Educational Testing Service and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages developed Proficiency Guidelines. This period also brought an interest in coping with the language needs of minorities in the Untied States.

Although national reports detail the need for Americans to be competent in other languages and cultures, only a handful of states have actually required foreign language be taught in elementary schools. Local districts are the cause for most long-standing elementary programs, like the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) program. In this program, courses are offered sequentially, beginning in primary grades and continuing through high school. Districts still face challenges in implementing programs like this, due to lack of support from state or federal levels; such as finding teachers adequately prepared in foreign languages.

The absence of a national curriculum and policy on foreign language studies have caused some districts to implement better policies, while others have chosen to eliminate programs altogether. While this is still largely due to budget restraints, the main problem lies in the fact that the benefits of early foreign language study isn’t socially recognized or understood. Since it is commonly understood that the longer you study a foreign language, the more proficient you become, then the benefits become more important the longer you study another language.

The advantages to starting children learning foreign language at a young are significant. During their elementary school years, children are open to a better global understanding, so the learning of a different language and culture further that development greatly. This study of these programs also increases basic skills performance in elementary school. Connections have been found to creativity, memory, and listening skills as well.

Research studies also indicate that studying another language may give students the “edge” needed to succeed in later education levels. A study of over 17,000 students applying for college admission revealed that “students who had completed a foreign language course in high school tended to have higher scores on the ACT exams in English and math regardless of their ability level”. It has also been found that high school foreign language students perform significantly better on the SAT verbal exam than monolingual students. SAT verbal skills also increase successively with each half year of foreign language study.

Once we get to the colleges and universities of our country, one of the problems we face is that, like the individual school districts and communities, they tend to do their own thing. The fact still remains that a very substantial portion of basic foreign language instruction is carried out in the collegiate level. Approximately one in every five students enrolled in language studies is studying at the college level. The result is that there is a major structural challenge in the layers of language learning systems. Ideally, the transition in these foreign language courses should be smooth and well articulated. Too often, the various levels of language-learning systems march to different drummers.

The result is considerable slippage in language study between high school and collegiate levels. Most students arrive in college already having had a substantial amount of language study, which is attributed to students’ desires for college admission. However, most institutions of higher education do not require foreign language study for entry. This shows remarkably little attention paid at this level to building on the foundation acquired during high school. In a comprehensive survey of college students conducted by the Department of Education, the proportion of students taking no language courses was 58.4 percent. So basically, while almost two-thirds of students arrive at college with some language instruction, more than half of take no language classes at all.

Yet another problem with our current educational system’s attitudes towards foreign language education is that it is overwhelmingly focused on the lower skill levels. In both high schools and colleges, the dropout rate is about fifty percent from one year to the next in foreign language studies (L.E. Panetta). A part of this is due to the fact that the system is set up to only require one to two years of study at both levels. These elementary skill levels do little, if anything, to enable students to use what they learn as a vehicle for communication.

Perhaps this problem is caused, in part, by the fact that American adults do not see a need to learn a foreign language. The commitments required to become proficient in another language, in their mind, outweighs any use they may get out of that knowledge. In some cases it is becoming more beneficial for working adults to learn a second language, usually Spanish, but until those that do the hiring actually push for more proficient language skills, the motivation will still remain low for adults.

With the ever-growing American appearance in foreign business, it would stand to benefit businesses to hire those that can communicate in foreign markets. Recent studies still show that businesses see multilingualism as secondary importance in hiring and promoting. With the English language becoming more prevalent in other countries, companies feel that the need to communicate in any other language just isn’t necessary.

Large companies are also filling management positions abroad, not with American-English speaking candidates, but with local nationals which have been taught and trained in the U.S. This is becoming the standard for large companies for a many reasons: 1) A global company has to respond to local needs that can only be truly understood by local nationals; 2) since many of these local nationals are schooled in the U.S., they are deeply familiar with the American culture; 3) the local nationals are bilingual and able to communicate with U.S. managers and subordinates alike; and 4) hiring locals is much more cost effective, since it is cheaper to hire the foreign locals than pay an American worker.

The major reasoning for this practice is the sheer lack of foreign language skills in highly educated MBA holders in America. Big corporations are just reaping the benefits of the growing English training being taught in other countries. Accepting the failure of language education in this country is hurting some companies, as someone is going to have to oversee the local national managers.

Although English is widely used in European business, it is still not seen a totally international language. In France and Germany, for example, it is necessary to use French and German. In a survey of leading executives in European countries, only thirty-one percent reported using English for professional purposes. Increasingly, English alone cannot be used to penetrate the non-English speaking markets.

Japan proves to be a major example of this pattern. Japanese society invests heavily in English-language education. Six years of English are required before high school graduation. Japanese corporations provide tuition for English-language classes. Yet the difficulty in doing business in Japan lies in their insistence that business be dealt with in Japanese. It’s as if the Japanese see their language as a prized capital which ensures much more self-control.

Until American public and schools see this as a problem, and push for more foreign language programs, U.S. companies will have to keep hiring abroad or trying to use English in markets where it is just not beneficial. This is a sad state for the strongest and most competitive economy in the world. It’s time for the government to step up and acknowledge this sad fact.

The federal government invests immense amounts of money in language instruction for government employees and members of the military. The technology level of most government language-teaching schools is considerably higher than in the formal education sector. Most federal funding in the development of fresh teaching material and research occurs within or for the government’s own language schools. It is a pity that there is little spillover into the private sector of these improvements.

The Foreign Language Assistance Act, which provides grants to states based upon the size of their school age populations, is an example of the federal government’s hit-and-miss attitudes towards language education. States were to submit project proposals to the U.S. Department of Education which, once accepted, would be funded. One of the limitations of the program was that no one could be sure how long these funds would continue into the future. Also, given the federal government’s desire for new projects, any long term cost of these changes and programs would be put onto the local governments. This is all too common today. Once federal funding for these programs is gone, there is almost no trace that they were around at all.

The longest running federal support program for foreign language education is Title VI of the Higher Education Act, but today it has lost more of it’s central purposes. Created in 1958, to make sure we didn’t get surprised again, like we did when the Russians launched Sputnik without our knowledge, the lesser taught languages were being focused on. Soon after though, this broadened into area studies and other nonlinguistic studies. It now supports international business education, undergraduate international studies, research and materials preparation, and overseas teacher training and conferencing.

In general, the federal government’s intervention in foreign language education is in the form of project grants. These tend to give only short-term funds the are meant to seed and grow into larger programs. This is not an answer to a long-term problem.

There are a number of positive trends occurring though: 1) the amount of foreign language instruction in the last decade had increased by nearly ten percent in the elementary level and has stayed relatively stable in at the secondary level; 2) the teaching of less commonly taught languages has increased at the elementary level; 3) computer-based instructional material are much more commonplace than in the past; 4) Staff development has increased in the past decade in both elementary and secondary levels; and 5) over half of schools changed the curriculum due to a heightened awareness of national or state standards by those teaching language classes.

But despite these positive trends, there is still cause for concern. Funding shortages, inadequate in-service training, poor sequencing from elementary into secondary schools, lack of quality materials, and poor academic counseling still remain problem areas. The bottom line is that what is lacking is a fundamental national commitment to foreign language training and education. There is little coordination between federal agencies that take the initiative to train their departments and the public education system. In line with this lack of coordination is the upgrade college and university programs. Because of increased financial restraints, these upper level education institutions are forced to prioritize, which again, leaves foreign language education by the side of the road.

International studies programs do not involve enough students. The percentage of undergraduates enrolling in these fields is still too low. This causes academic international studies programs to be slow to the national changes needed.

The United States is showing signs of de-emphasizing internationalism in higher education as the rest of the world’s universities are becoming more international. Approximately 43,000 Japanese students study in the U.S., while less than 2,000 Americans study in Japan. We will lose our competitive edge in the global marketplace if this trend continues. Other nations recognize that they operate in a global economy and that understanding other cultures and languages is valuable and necessary.

We can follow the idea that English is sufficient enough to get by in dealing with military, diplomatic, and economic challenges that are arising, or we can follow other nations and mobilize our nation to promote competence in foreign languages. Now more than ever, the need for Americans to be able to compete on the national stage is of great importance. If we are willing to take strong actions and demand that all schools teach foreign language at every level, and that it be a cumulative learning experience, America will continue to be the world leader we strive to be.