Press Release

United States Needs to Significantly Increase Access to Language Learning to Remain Competitive


CAMBRIDGE, MA | FEBRUARY 28, 2017 — The American Academy of Arts and Sciences today released the final report and recommendations of the Commission on Language Learning, a national effort established to examine the current state of U.S. language education, to project what the nation’s education needs will be in the future, and to offer recommendations for ways to meet those needs.

“This report arrives at an important moment in our history,” American Academy President Jonathan Fanton said. “While English continues to be the most commonly used language for world trade and diplomacy, there is an emerging consensus among leaders in business and government, teachers, and scientists that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world. And parents are beginning to understand that there are real benefits to teaching their children a second or third language in addition to English: cognitive benefits, important habits of mind, and new and valuable perspectives on the world.”

While more than 65 million U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home, that number represents only 20.7 percent of the total population, and only a fraction of this cohort is considered proficient in reading, writing, and speaking a second language.

The vast majority of American citizens remain monolingual.

“Our greatest challenge, as our final report highlights in detail, is one of teaching capacity,” said Chairman of the Commission Paul LeClerc, the Director of the Columbia University Global Center in Paris, who served as chair of the Commission, past president and CEO of the New York Public Library, and Hunter College President emeritus. “The Commission recommends ways to organize existing resources so that we can teach more Americans to speak more languages at an earlier age. We also want to make sure that language education is available to people of every cultural and socio-economic background,” he said.

The Commission recommends a national strategy to improve access to as many languages as possible for people of every region, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, with a goal of valuing language education as a persistent national need similar to education in math or English, and to ensure reaching proficiency is within every student’s reach.

The Commission’s five recommendations are:

1. 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.Encourage the coordination of state credentialing systems so that qualified teachers can find work in regions where there are significant shortages.

  • Attract talented and enthusiastic language teachers through federal loan forgiveness programs.
  • Develop and distribute online and digital technologies, as well as blended learning models, particularly in communities with a short supply of language teachers.
  • Provide new opportunities for advanced study in languages in higher education—for future language teachers as well scholars in other fields—through a recommitment to language instruction, blended learning programs, and the development of new regional consortia allowing colleges and universities to pool learning resources.

2. Supplement language instruction across the education system through public-private partnerships among schools, government, philanthropies, businesses, and local community members.

  • Draw on local and regional resources by working with heritage language communities and other local experts to create in-school and after-school instructional programs.
  • Maintain support for state humanities councils and other organizations that create vital language and cultural resources for local communities.

3. Support heritage languages already spoken in the United States, and help these languages persist from one generation to the next.

  • Encourage heritage language speakers to pursue further instruction in their heritage languages.
  • Provide more language learning opportunities for heritage speakers in classroom or school settings.
  • Expand efforts to create college and university curricula designed specifically for heritage speakers and to offer course credit for proficiency in heritage language.

4. Provide targeted attention to Native American languages as defined in NALA.

  • Increase support for the use of Native American languages as the primary languages of education, and for the development of curricula and education materials for such programs.
  • Provide opportunities for Native Americans and others to study Native American languages in English-based schools with appropriate curricula and materials.

5. Promote opportunities for students to learn languages in other countries, by experiencing other cultures and immersing themselves in multilingual environments.

  • Encourage high schools and universities to facilitate learning abroad opportunities for students.
  • Increase the number of international internships sponsored by businesses and NGOs.
  • Restructure federal financial aid to help low-income undergraduates experience study abroad during the summer as well as the academic year.

The full report, entitled America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education in the 21st Century, is available at

“The Commission’s work was thoughtful, extensive, and critical to the future of our nation,” said Martha G. Abbott, Executive Director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “In the weeks and months ahead, ACTFL will work tirelessly along with the entire language profession through a national public awareness campaign, Lead with Languages, to encourage action by local, state, and federal leaders, as well as university, corporate and nonprofit partners, to gain a national commitment to language learning,” she said.

The Commission was formed in response to a bipartisan Congressional request from:

  • Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii); and
  • Representatives Leonard Lance (R-New Jersey), David Price (D-North Carolina), Don Young (R-Alaska), and former Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey).

In their request, the members of Congress asked the American Academy to undertake the new study to examine the following questions: “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 attainment?” and “How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans?”

In calling for the Academy’s study, the members of Congress emphasized that American society is increasingly multilingual, Americans are more engaged around the globe than ever before, and most of the major challenges and opportunities—from public health issues to the development of new technologies—require international understanding and cooperation.

Initial support for the Commission was provided by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, and by the Academy’s New Initiatives Fund.

The current situation is putting the United States at a competitive disadvantage in a global society:

  • Almost 30 percent of business executives report having missed opportunities due to a lack of on-staff language skills, and 40 percent reported that they failed to reach their international potential due to language barriers;
  • An estimated 300-400 million Chinese students are now studying English, compared to about 200,000 U.S. students currently studying Chinese;
  • Approximately 66 percent of all European adults report having knowledge of more than one language, compared with 20 percent of U.S. residents;
  • Only 15 percent of the nation’s public elementary schools offer a program for languages other than English, compared with more than 50 percent of private elementary schools;
  • Across the nation, there has been a significant decline in the number of middle schools offering world languages: from 75 percent in 1997 to 58 percent in 2008;
  • At least 44 states report a shortage of qualified K-12 language or bilingual teachers for the 2016-2017 school year; more states report a teacher shortage in languages than in any other subject;

In December 2016, the Commission released a companion report that provided additional supporting data, The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait.

The Commission studied all the ways in which Americans receive language education, from classes in traditional academic settings to government programs to workplace enrichment, to identify best practices and opportunities for improvement. The last major, national report on language learning was Strength Through Wisdom: A Critique of U.S. Capability, published in 1979 by the President’s Commission on Foreign Languages and International Studies.

The Commission worked with scholarly and professional organizations around the country to gather available research about the benefits of language instruction at every educational level, from pre-school through lifelong learning to initiate a nationwide conversation about languages and international education.

In addition to Dr. Paul LeClerc, members of the Commission on Language Learning were:

  • Martha G. Abbott, Executive Director, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages;
  • Mark Aronoff, Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, Stony Brook University;
  • Jessie “little doe” Baird, Cofounder and Linguistic Director, Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project;
  • David Chu, President, Institute for Defense Analysis;
  • Dan E. Davidson, President, American Councils for International Education;
  • Nicholas B. Dirks, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley;
  • Brian T. Edwards, Crown Professor, Middle East Studies, Professor of English, Comparative Literary Studies, and American Studies, Northwestern University;
  • Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General, and Director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative, Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University;
  • Rosemary G. Feal, Executive Director, Modern Language Association;
  • Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History, Columbia University;
  • Nancy McEldowney, Director, Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State;
  • Philip Rubin, Senior Advisor to the President, Haskins Laboratories, and former Principal Assistant Director for Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy;
  • Rubén G. Rumbaut, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of California, Irvine;
  • Marta Tienda, Maurice P. During ’22 Professor of Demographic Studies and Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University;
  • Kenneth L. Wallach, Executive Chairman and former CEO, Central National Gottesman, Inc.;
  • Diane P. Wood, Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit; and
  • Pauline Yu, President, American Council of Learned Societies.

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 approximately 4,800 elected members and 600 foreign honorary 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 U.S. Support for the Commission is provided by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a grant from the 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 policymakers, journalists, and the general public. The Indicators are supported through funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.



Andy Tiedemann
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Interim Chief Communications Officer
Twitter: @americanacad




Commission on Language Learning

Paul LeClerc