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Same Topic, Different Tongue: the American Academy Report on Language Learning

Ed Central

Yesterday, two hours before the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published its Promising Futures report on dual language learners (DLLS), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) published America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century.

The AAAS’ report was prompted by a bipartisan congressional request, which asked,

How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans? What actions should the nation take to ensure excellence in all languages as well as international education and research, including how we may more effectively use current resources to advance language learning?

At the National Press Club, just nine blocks west of NASEM’s then-upcoming DLL event, members of AAAS’ language commission met for a public discussion of their answers. One of the panel members, University of California, Irvine professor Rubén Rumbaut, offered the core of the commission’s framing, “Ironically, despite the diversity of American languages, the United States has acquired the dubious designation of being a language graveyard...we have immigrants and children of immigrants not passing on their language skills.”

Indeed, census data suggests that just 30 million Americans speak a language other than English well (another 30 million speak a non-English language, but less proficiently), while over 230 million are monolingual English speakers. In other words, about 20 percent of Americans claim any ability in languages other than English. Meanwhile, America’s Languages notes, about two-thirds of Europeans “report having some knowledge of more than one language,” and “an estimated 300–400 million Chinese students are now learning English, compared with about 200,000 U.S. students currently studying Chinese.” In other words, despite its long history as a destination for (often multilingual) immigrants, the United States has a similarly long history of, as the report puts it, remaining “stubbornly monolingual.”

America’s Languages offers four strategies for addressing this situation:

  • Building Educational Capacity

  • Involving Local Communities, Businesses, and Philanthropies

  • Developing Heritage Languages and Revitalizing Native American Languages

  • Encouraging International Study and Cultural Immersion

And yet, the report devotes more pages (12) to the first of these — “Building Educational Capacity” — than the other three combined. While that section contains discussions of a variety of ways for expanding U.S. schools’ multilingual offerings, it primarily focuses on addressing the country’s persistent multilingual teacher shortage. The first of its “Key Recommendations” calls upon U.S. leaders to “Increase the number of language teachers at all levels of education so that every child in every state has the opportunity to learn a language in addition to English.” This emphasis on teachers should be intuitive. As members of New America’s DLL National Work Group have written before, “It is essentially impossible to expand access to multilingual instruction without training and hiring more multilingual teachers.”

If the primary problem is clear, however, the path forward is somewhat less so. It can be difficult for a report addressing longstanding sticky educational challenges like these to offer specific recommendations — especially when their topic is bedeviled by the swirling winds of public debates over immigration and national identity. It can be tempting to offer recommendations that amount to vague policy priorities carefully phrased to avoid committing the report (or any particular policymaker) to a controversial position. In an ideal world, a comprehensive, coherent plan for expanding multilingualism in the United States would consist of crisp tasks for specific actors to take within identifiable budgets and timelines. But any such plan would run the considerable risk of being dismissed by groups objecting to those details. As such, recommendations in these reports are always strung taut between competing goals: persuading the skeptical and providing actionable guidance to those already convinced.

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Commission on Language Learning

Paul LeClerc