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Expert: Americans Need Better Understanding Of Other Languages, Cultures

Wisconsin Public Radio

About 20 percent of the United States’ population speaks a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census Bureau data in a recent reportThe State of Languages in the U.S.

However, of the more than 230 million people in the U.S. who speak English, "very few" become proficient in a language other than English in school, the report showed.

The low number of Americans learning another language may have to do with the country’s history of being fairly isolated from the rest of the world, said Martha Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

There's also an attitude English is sufficient enough to communicate with people around the word, Abbott said.

"We have a different situation today, where our economic competitiveness is going to be based on our ability to sell our goods worldwide and to be able to conduct diplomacy with other countries," she said. "The way that you do that is by speaking their language and understanding their cultures."

"It's a new world for us as Americans, and it's time for us to prepare to be able to do business with people around the world," she added.

One of the main misconceptions about language learning is one that's heard in advertisements for different products – languages can be learned quickly. That's not the case, Abbott said.

"It's much better and a much sounder approach if you start early at a young age and have a long sequence of language study," Abbott said.

Abbott said there has been an increase in school districts implementing language programs in elementary schools so students can have exposure at a younger age.

Abbott agreed growing up bilingual – and sometimes trilingual – is normal in other countries, but it hasn't been normal in the U.S. and that needs to change, she said.

Utah and Delaware are two states that have put "significant funding" into elementary dual-language programs, Abbott said.

"The reason, their governors say, is so that they can raise a multilingual citizenry that will attract international businesses and allow them to do business worldwide," Abbott said. "I think that we need to see more states, more activity at the state level happening."

Wisconsin also sets a good example, Abbot said, noting it has been a leader in terms of helping students prepare for the global environment in which they'll live.

One initiative is the state's Global Education Achievement Certificate, which students can earn if they demonstrate a strong interest in global citizenship by completing global education curriculum and engage in experiences that encourage the development of global competency. Another is the state's Seal of Biliteracy, which can be added to a student's diploma or transcript if they can document their proficiency in two languages, English and another.

Wisconsin, Abbot said, sets the proficiency level for this as intermediate high.

"I can tell you that that is a significant level and a real mark of achievement, and so I think having students at the K-12 level work toward this proficiency level will really help students in Wisconsin be more proficient and ready to enter college and university at a higher level of proficiency," she said.

At this time, 22 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Seal of Biliteracy.

View full story: Wisconsin Public Radio



Commission on Language Learning

Paul LeClerc