Spring 2017 Bulletin

Commission on Language Learning

Commission on Language Learning

The final report of the Academy’s Commission on Language Learning, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century, was released on February 28, 2017, during a series of events in Washington, D.C. The report, which responds to a bipartisan request from four U.S. Senators and four Members of the House of Representatives, is already contributing to public discussions about the future of American education.

Commission Chair Paul LeClerc speaks at the morning press conference.

Commission Chair Paul LeClerc speaks at the morning press conference.


America’s Languages highlights the importance of language education for business, science and technology, international relations, and our civic life. It presents a national strategy “to make language learning a valued national priority, and to address a need that is more acute today than at any other time in our history.”

The Commission offers five basic recommendations, each focusing on ways to build the nation’s language capacity. The recommendations are:

  1. Increase the number of language teachers in P-12 education so that every child in every state has the opportunity to learn a language in addition to English.
  2. Supplement language instruction across the education system through public-private partnerships among schools, governments, philanthropies, businesses, and local community members.
  3. Support heritage languages already spoken in the United States, and help these languages persist from one generation to the next.
  4. Provide targeted attention to Native American languages as defined in the Native American Languages Act of 1990.
  5. Promote opportunities for students to learn languages in other countries, by experiencing other cultures and immersing themselves in multilingual environments.

Academy President Jonathan Fanton and Commission Chair Paul LeClerc (Director of the Columbia Global Center in Paris and former President of the New York Public Library) introduced the report during a press conference at the National Press Club. Before a standing-room-only crowd, President Fanton explained the importance of the Commission’s work.

“This report arrives at an important moment in our history,” he said. “While English continues to be the preferred language for world trade and diplomacy, there is an emerging consensus among leaders in business and government, teachers, scientists, and parents that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world. Current research suggests that only 10 percent of the U.S. population speaks a language other than English proficiently. We can and must do better.”

Following these remarks, a panel of Commission members spoke about different aspects of the recommendations. Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, Director of the Foreign Service Institute, offered her thoughts about the importance of languages in government. Rubén Rumbaut, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, described the opportunities and challenges for language learners today. And Martha Abbott, Executive Director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), discussed recommendations related to the teaching profession. She then announced the launch of ACTFL’s new campaign, Lead with Languages, which will reinforce the Commission’s recommendations as it educates parents and students about the importance of language education.

After the morning conference, Commission members and representatives of government agencies, academic associations, and learned societies discussed follow-up opportunities at the federal, state, and local levels.

In addition, Academy members participated in a briefing, organized by Representative Don Young (R-Alaska). Staff from over twenty Congressional of­fices attended. In addition to Jonathan Fanton, Paul LeClerc, and Nancy McEldowney, the speakers included Dan Davidson, President and Cofounder of the American Councils for International Education, who spoke about the implications of the report for higher education, and Jesse “little doe” Baird, Cofounder of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, who described efforts to preserve Native American languages.

Congressman David Price introduces the World Language Advancement and Readiness Act at the briefing, with (far left to right) Jessie “little doe” Baird, Dan Davidson, Paul LeClerc, Jonathan Fanton, and Nancy McEldowney.

Congressman David Price introduces the World Language Advancement and Readiness Act at the briefing, with (far left to right) Jessie “little doe” Baird, Dan Davidson, Paul LeClerc, Jonathan Fanton, and Nancy McEldowney.


During the briefing, Representative David Price (D-North Carolina) introduced the World Language Advancement and Readiness Act, a bill cosigned by Don Young, Leonard Lance (R-New Jersey), and five of their colleagues. The act proposes three-year competitive grants to support local and state school districts that want to establish, improve, or expand innovative programs in world language learning. The bill responds directly to several recommendations from America’s Languages and concludes with the following paragraph:

“The Commission on Language Learning of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, requested by Congress in 2014, will release its final report on February 28, 2017. The initial data demonstrate that ‘by several measures, the United States has neglected languages in its educational curricula, its international strategies, and its domestic policies.’ It is clear that effective communication is the basis of international cooperation, and a strong national defense depends substantially on the ability of Americans to communicate and compete by knowing the languages and cultures of other countries.”

Throughout the day and in the weeks that followed, the Commission’s report and the rollout events were the subject of significant activity on social media as well as coverage in the national press. As a result, over twenty thousand copies of America’s Languages were distributed online and in print during the first two weeks following the release of the publication. Commission members are now engaged in an extensive, national effort to publicize the recommendations and to support language education efforts at the local, state, and federal levels.

More information about the Commission on the Language Learning is available at http://www.amacad.org/language.