Press Release

New Report Suggests that the Nation’s Capacity in Languages Other than English Has Diminished, Despite Need


CAMBRIDGE, MA | December 15, 2016 – The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has released a report that suggests a diminishing share of U.S. residents speak languages other than English, a trend that could have important consequences for business, international affairs, and intellectual exchange.

The Academy’s new report, The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait, summarizes the nation’s current language capacity, focusing on the U.S. education system. A joint venture of the Academy’s Commission on Language Learning and Humanities Indicators, the report draws on the most recent national, state, and local data sources available to draw a more complete picture of language use in the nation.

“This very important work is ongoing and we look forward to the Commission’s final report and recommendations that will be available in February,” said Jonathan F. Fanton, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Among the key findings the report:

  • Estimates that only 20% of U.S. residents can speak a language other than English;
  • Highlights data that show how quickly facility in a language other than English fades in immigrant households, even among those who immigrated to the United States as children;
  • Points to evidence of the dwindling of language education at every level, from early childhood education to the nation’s colleges, with declines in the number of K–12 schools teaching languages, as well as the number of students taking language courses in college;
  • Demonstrates the effects of a patchwork of local and state policies for language education in new findings at the K–12 level, with the share of students taking languages as high as 51% in New Jersey, and less than 13% in eight states;
  • Offers a more nuanced picture of language skills by highlighting a continuum of skills and expertise—ranging from a limited ability to speak or understand a language to advanced capacity to speak, read, and write in another language; and
  • Notes the sizeable gaps in current data—pointing to the need for further data collection.

The forthcoming 2017 report of the Academy’s Commission on Language Learning will respond to this data by offering concrete recommendations and strategies to improve language education so that every U.S. citizen can share in the rewards and benefits of learning a language other than English.

The Commission will highlight an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world—even as English continues to be the lingua franca for international business and diplomacy.

About the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is among the nation’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, convening leaders from the academic, business, and government sectors to respond to the challenges facing the nation and the world. In its work, the Academy focuses on higher education, the humanities, and the arts; science and technology policy; global security and international affairs; and American institutions and the public good. Academy research has resulted in reports such as The Heart of the Matter, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream, Public Research Universities–Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century, and A Primer on the College Student Journey. The Academy’s work is advanced by its more than 5,000 elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs from around the world.

The Commission on Language Learning, responds to a request from a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Members of Congress. It is composed of national leaders in education, scientific and humanistic research, business, and government. Its final report will recommend a range of options for improving—and making more widely available—a set of educational approaches, services, and technological innovations to strengthen language learning in the United States. Support for the Commission is provided by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, and resources from the Academy’s New Initiatives Fund.

The Humanities Indicators, a research initiative of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, offer policy-neutral descriptive statistics that chart trends in the field over time for policy-makers, journalists, and the general public. The Indicators are supported through funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Media contacts:
Courtney McLean; 617-441-6188;
Andy Tiedemann; 781-521-0909;




Commission on Language Learning

Paul LeClerc