Academy Article

New Federal Program Among the Far-Ranging Achievements of the Commission on Language Learning


When President Donald Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in December 2019, the World Language Advancement and Readiness Act became the first piece of federal legislation in a generation that addressed the language needs of the nation.

This act is the most high-profile achievement of Academy’s Commission on Language Learning since it released its final report in 2017. That report, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century, highlights the importance of language education for business, science and technology, international relations, and civic life. The Commission, requested by Congress, was chaired by Paul LeClerc, director of Columbia Global Centers-Paris, former president and CEO of the New York Public Library, and former president of Hunter College. It included eighteen leaders from academia, business, and government affairs.

During the public release of the report in the House of Representatives, Congressman David Price (D-North Carolina) introduced the World Language Advancement and Readiness Act. The bill–cosigned by Congressmen Don Young (R-Alaska), Leonard Lance (R-New Jersey), and thirteen of their colleagues–was written in response to several of the recommendations in the America’s Languages report. It proposed three-year competitive grants supporting local and state school districts trying to establish, improve, or expand innovative programs in world language learning. The bill was enacted as an amendment to the 2020 NDAA.

As the Commission members wrote in their report, and as the enacted legislation attests, “[T]here is an emerging consensus among leaders in education and science, business and government, international relations and the military, and community organizations and nonprofits that English is critical but not sufficient to meet the nation’s future needs, and that a greater public emphasis on language education would yield results far greater than any initial financial investments.” The World Language Advancement and Readiness Act, enacted in the U.S. Department of Defense, is a critical initial investment.

But this bill is only one of many important results of the America’s Languages report.

The federal impact of the report has been particularly significant. In addition to introducing the new legislation, Representatives Price and Young created the America’s Languages Caucus in the House of Representatives, a bipartisan group of sixteen Members and growing who seek to:

  • Raise awareness about the importance of world language learning and international education, particularly as it relates to our nation’s economic and national security;
  • Ensure adequate resources are directed toward the study of world language learning; and
  • Focus on improving access for students and educators who wish to participate in these fields of study, including world languages, Native American languages, and English for English learners.

Representative Price also organized a “Dear Colleague” letter, ultimately signed by 65 Members of Congress, which relied on America’s Languages in its defense of federal funding for Title VI education programs and Fulbright-Hays Fellowships. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) organized a similar letter signed by 23 Senators.

The report was influential in the recent debates to reauthorize the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, which passed both Houses unanimously and was signed by President Trump in late December 2019. And it has been cited as a justification for four bills awaiting the future reauthorization of the Higher Education Act: the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, the Biliteracy Education Seal and Teaching (BEST) Act, the Reaching America’s English Learners Act, and the Supporting Providers of English Language Learning (SPELL) Act.

Inspired by the Academy report, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Bill in September 2017 included a request for new and increased funding for Native American language immersion programs and called for a feasibility study for the creation of a new, national Native American Languages Center as a clearinghouse for best practices, curricula, and expertise in the preservation of native languages. Although those initiatives have been delayed, they continue to have support in the Senate and are expected to be reintroduced in future committee debates.

In addition, on August 22, 2018, Commission member Jessie little doe Baird testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about the importance of Native American language reclamation projects and cited the America’s Languages report at length.

In these ways, America’s Languages has been instrumental in reaffirming the status of language education as a matter of national policy.

It has also been an important feature of many local policy discussions, including deliberations at Northwestern University about future language initiatives, at California State University on the future of language requirements, at Tulane University about curricular innovations and the expansion of language offerings and faculty, and at the National Indian Education Association, which adopted a resolution to “Urge Congress to Act on Recommendations from American Academy of Arts and Sciences to Support Native American Languages.”

The report has been the subject of significant media attention, with features in professional journals for language teachers and op-eds by former Ambassador and Commission member Karl Eikenberry, published in Inside Higher Ed, and by former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, printed in the San Francisco Chronicle.

This renewed interest in and attention to language education, as well as to the Commission’s report, is the result of an extensive two-year outreach effort, during which Commission members attended dozens of professional conferences and public events, such as the National Humanities Conference, the College Boards AP Annual Conference, the annual meetings of the Association for Psychological Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a public event at Stough Elementary School in Raleigh, NC, that featured Representative Price, Ambassador Eikenberry, and Academy Board Chair Nancy Andrews–the second event to be held in a K-12 school in the Academy’s 238-year history.

In addition to events organized by the Academy in support of the report, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) has been discussing and distributing copies of America’s Languages as part of its Lead with Languages campaign. ACTFL, the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL), and the American Councils for International Education have shared the report and recommendations with Members of Congress, at Language Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill in 2018 and 2019, with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and at dozens of academic conferences. ACTFL also dedicated several volumes of its publication, The Language Educator, to the report’s recommendations to highlight how the organization is implementing the goals.

To continue this outreach, the Academy and its partners have organized the America’s Languages Working Group, which includes representatives of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, the Modern Language Association, the American Councils for International Education, the Joint National Committee for Languages, the Aspen Institute, and the National Humanities Alliance, among others, to plan a coordinated follow-up effort that highlights the Commission’s report.

The Group's priorities are:

  • The creation of a petition, “Bridging America’s Language Gap,” now signed by almost 200 American businesses, NGOs, and others, affirming the importance of language education and the Commission’s recommendations;
  • The creation of an online resource collecting promising innovations in language education from around the country;
  • Efforts to encourage or enact specific recommendations of the America’s Languages report.

In the coming year, the Working Group will build a pilot of the online resource. At the same time, the American Academy will work with the British Academy and scholarly academies in Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland to draft and then sign a joint statement on the importance of language education in the twenty-first century, even among the nations that enjoy a great advantage of having English serve as the international language of business and diplomacy.

Other nations have already responded to the Commission’s work. For example, the Secretariat of the International Association of Teachers of Russian has translated America’s Languages and distributed it widely in Russia as a model analysis for teachers of international languages.

The Academy is grateful for funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Longview Foundation for supporting in part the activities of the Commission and the America’s Languages Working Group.





Commission on Language Learning

Paul LeClerc