Foreign language study vital to U.S. students

May 8, 2010


Politicians continue to preach the importance of global competitiveness if America has hopes of remaining an international force for good.

The words coming from Washington are persuasive; the record of tangible action is not.

Amazingly, not quite half of today’s high school students in the United States are taking a language that is not English, and most of them do not progress beyond the introductory level.

Most, by the way, study Spanish although the federal government has recognized the study of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi as essential to national security and business.

And our global competitors?

Twenty of the 25 leading industrialized nations begin serious study of the languages in grades K-5, while most America schools do not start the study of foreign language until age 14. In Europe students are required to study another language for at least nine years.

China and India, two of the world’s behemoths, are aggressively challenging the U.S. on the volatile economic front. Fortunately, the use of English is common in India.

Not so in China. For that reason more than 300 million Chinese students are learning English and 100,000 of them are studying in America. By comparison, only 50,000 students from this country are booking it in Chinese and fewer than 20,000 are actually studying in China.

Not surprisingly, schools and school districts around the country are rapidly creating Chinese-language programs because they recognize the significance of China’s growing economic and cultural importance.

There is a history of federal government support for language and cultural programs, but it is painfully inadequate by today’s needs and standards. Furthermore, there are about 10,000 foreign teachers working in this country to fill shortages in science, mathematics, foreign languages, and special education because we do not have enough certified American teachers to take these jobs.

Something is clearly out of balance.

If we are to continue to lead, as we must, the United States requires the needed skills to communicate in other languages and cultures. It must have the ability to talk with and work with peers in all areas of importance internationally.

According to Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, his organization has supported a number of international initiatives with China, like the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, which brings Chinese teachers to America to teach Chinese to American students. “America cannot compete if it cannot communicate,” he asserts.

Many of the day’s more attractive jobs require bilingual skills and that is certain to only increase. Few positions that affect the economy will be exempt, very few.

Bilingual skills are even in increasing demand for all professional sports.

The federal government has a real opportunity to bring about swift action by reordering some programmatic objectives.

It is encouraging to note than more and more progressive school districts are enriching support for the languages, and especially for Chinese. They are seemingly more in step with business and industry, and ahead of some who loudly purport to be advocates for the common good.

— Gene A. Budig is a former president of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and the past president of Major League Baseball’s American League.


barrypenders 7 years, 11 months ago

By all means forego 'Engrish', the most expressive language on the planet and learn 'Farsi'.

'Beautiful Minds' Budig.

Stimulus, Lunatic Fringe, and Posercare live unprecedented

Darwin bless us

whats_going_on 7 years, 11 months ago

for gods sake, they aren't saying to learn another language INSTEAD of English. Get your head out of your arse and read the story instead of skimming it for words to twist around.

A friend of mine, born in the US, has family who speaks another language and so of course, he learned and speaks it at home (his English is just like any American's, so calm down). He was directly contacted by several big employers because of it. Speaking another language nowadays automatically makes you more attractive to employers (considering, of course, that language is widely used).

marek4 7 years, 11 months ago

Americans traditionally think that they control the world because the world "speaks English." In fact, monolinguals are always under control because they get only the information that others feed them (by speaking "English" to them) and miss all of the contextual information around them. Anyone who operates in a foreign environment with English-only knows s/he is living in a delicate bubble and is at the mercy of strangers. America's future greatness depends crucially on American students acquiring language skills and world-area knowledge.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 11 months ago

Germany is the leading economic power in the EU, which is the leading economic power in the world, and Germany is the fifth largest economy in the world all by itself.

tbaker 7 years, 11 months ago

I agree with this article. The lack of language skills in the United States puts us at a distinct diadvantage. Given the size of our economy now, the emphasis is more on others learning English, but that is slowly and steadily changing as China and India emerge as economic peers. Though not serious now, language study in the US is pitiful. If for no other reason, many studies show a substantial increase in cognative reasoning skills in people who learn a foriegn language when they were young.

Brian Laird 7 years, 11 months ago

It's not just spin. Germany is the 2nd leading exporter in the word after China - quite a feat considering there are over a billion chinese and only 80 million Germans - the US is third. This means that Germans are heavily involved in international trade and business. And yes, while it is true that many Germans speak decent English, if you want to sell something to someone it is an advantage to speak their language given the importance of personal relationships in business.

SnakeFist 7 years, 11 months ago

While I agree that those who engage in international affairs should know something of the language and, more importantly, culture of the particular people they interact with, I think it is terribly inefficient and wasteful to require high school students (and, at least, at KU and WU, college students) to arbitrarily pick a language which the vast majority of them will never use.

Students should learn about other cultures. I understand that language is part of culture, but it is a very indirect and incomplete way of learning cultural perspective. Understanding other cultures' perspectives provides much greater benefits to the average American than understanding other peoples' languages.

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