A major 2013 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences warned that at “the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education,” including the humanities, the U.S. was instead “narrowing” its focus and abandoning its “sense of what education has been and should continue to be.”
The paper caught the attention of policy makers, including members of Congress. Four Republicans and four Democrats asked the academy to dig deeper into the state of language education in the U.S. They wanted to know what the U.S. could do to ensure excellence in language education, especially how it might more efficiently use existing resources. They also asked how language learning influences economic growth, cultural diplomacy, productivity for future generations and a sense of personal fulfillment.
Political winds now seem even more foul to the humanities (and more inward-blowing) than they were in 2013. And many foreign language departments at all kinds of colleges and universities have found their budgets threatened and, in some cases, eliminated. But those involved in the resulting report are hopeful their findings in support of language education opportunities for all students will gain traction.
“America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century,” released today, doesn’t call for “massive increases in funding at the local, state or federal levels,” said Paul LeClerc, director of Columbia University’s Global Center in Paris and chair of the academy’s Commission on Language Learning. “For the most part, we ask for sustained funding and encourage creative partnerships to increase teaching capacity, not massive government spending programs.”
The commission acknowledges its greatest challenge in making foreign language learning accessible to all students is teaching capacity, and it recommends upping the number of teachers in pre- and K-12 schools. But it hopes such instruction will be supplemented with partnerships among schools, governments, businesses and nonprofits. The Chicago Public Schools system, for example, offers an Arabic language program that's guided by Chicago's Center for Arabic Language and Culture, and supported by local Arabic speakers, local and international businesses, and the Qatar Foundation International.
The report also calls for more teaching of heritage languages spoken by immigrants to the U.S. and their families, in part to help those skills persist from one generation to the next. It urges additional, targeted support for the many Native American languages.
The commission calls, too, for more opportunities for students to learn languages -- and, with them, cultures -- abroad. One specific recommendation is to restructure federal financial aid to help students from low-income backgrounds study abroad during the summer, as well as the academic year.
As for what’s at stake in such efforts, LeClerc said having more Americans with competency in languages other than English “is essential from virtually any point of view you can think of” -- from economic growth and competitiveness to national defense to increased academic achievement and what he called “successful functioning in a global economy.”
Rosemary Feal, fellow commissioner and executive director of the Modern Language Association, was more pointed. “The greatest risk for failing to implement the key recommendations in this report is to further aggravate national isolationism,” which is not only detrimental for business purposes, she said, “but downright dangerous in an era in which immigration bans and a physical barrier with Mexico are being instituted or threatened.”
In the current political climate, Feal added, “the recommendations of the report are even more relevant than when it was commissioned.” She said language learning is one of the best ways to cultivate empathy, and the earlier in children's education the process starts, “the more likely they are to become well-functioning global citizens.”