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President Speaks: Colleges must prioritize foreign languages

Michael A. McRobbie
Education Dive

In 1979, the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies used some very powerful words in characterizing America's insufficient understanding of global affairs.

"Americans' incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous," the commission concluded, adding that "the United States requires far more reliable capacities to communicate with its allies, analyze the behavior of potential adversaries and earn the trust and the sympathies of the uncommitted."

Nearly four decades after the release of the commission's "Strength Through Wisdom" report, our world has never been more interconnected. Here in my home state of Indiana, about one-fourth of our $359.5 billion gross domestic product comes from international trade. More than 8,000 companies export their products around the globe from locations in Indiana, and we have more than 800 foreign-owned businesses that employ some 200,000 Hoosiers. Our towns and cities are also becoming increasingly diverse and multicultural; more than 8% of Indiana residents speak a language other than English, and more than 275 languages are spoken within homes across the state.


Indiana is representative of the globalization that is occurring all across the U.S. And yet, our country still faces a major deficit in our ability to understand and work with other people around the planet because we cannot effectively communicate with them. Ours remains a major — if not "scandalous" — foreign language deficit at a time when markets are rapidly becoming more global, when interdependencies among countries are becoming greater and when our national security challenges are becoming grander and more complex.

sobering new report by the Modern Language Association indicated U.S. colleges and universities slashed a staggering 651 foreign-language programs during a recent three-year (2013 to 2016) period, a stunning statistic that likely reflects, in part, the impact of the Great Recession and that coincides with a sizable drop in the number of students enrolling in foreign language courses.

The loss of these programs is extremely troubling. It suggests that we fail to recognize how critical strong language competence is to our economic competitiveness and national security. It also shows how quickly we can forget the lessons we learned at other key points in our country's history, such as in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when we saw a resurgence of focus on foreign language and cultural studies programs as critical to our nation's security.

As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Commission on Language Learning concluded in a 2017 report, English continues to be the primary language of international business and diplomacy, but proficiency in that language alone will not meet our nation's strategic needs in a truly global society. There must be a renewed investment in language education, the commission decided, and not just in moments of urgency, such as supporting Russian studies during the Cold War and increasing instruction of certain Middle Eastern languages after 9/11.

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Commission on Language Learning

Paul LeClerc