Foreign language classes becoming more scarce

Of all the skills that a person could have in today’s globalized world, few serve individuals – and the larger society – as well as knowing how to speak another language.

People who speak another language score higher on tests and think more creatively, have access to a wider variety of jobs, and can more fully enjoy and participate in other cultures or converse with people from diverse backgrounds.

Knowledge of foreign languages is also vital to America’s national security and diplomacy. Yet, according to the U.S Government Accountability Office, nearly one in four Foreign Service officers do not meet the language proficiency requirements that they should meet to do their jobs.

Despite all these reasons to learn a foreign language, there has been a steep decline in foreign language instruction in America’s colleges and universities. Researchers at the Modern Language Association recently found that colleges lost 651 foreign language programs from 2013 to 2016 – dramatically more than the one foreign language programs that higher education lost between 2009 and 2013. Reasons given for the trend include the lingering effects of the Great Recession, declining enrollment and more colleges dropping language requirements. For the purpose of the Modern Language Association study, programs are course offerings during a given semester, not entire departments.

At the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, for instance, officials announced plans to eliminate 13 majors – including French, German and Spanish – as part of an effort to cut costs.

As an author who has written extensively about the United States’ foreign language deficit, I’m concerned.

Scarce in schools

Part of the problem I see is that so few students in the United States – just 20 percent – study a foreign language at the K-12 level. At the college level, the number drops even lower, with only 7.5 percent of students enrolled in a foreign language course. And that percentage has been steadily declining in recent years. It could be due to the fact that more colleges have dropped foreign language requirements. Or students simply may not see the potential career benefits of studying a foreign language.

To put those statistics into perspective, consider the fact that in Europe, studying a foreign language is a “nearly ubiquitous experience.” This is because most European countries – unlike the United States – have national-level mandates that require foreign language instruction.

New way of thinking

Research shows that Americans’ attitudes toward language instruction may be holding them back. In his book, “Educating Global Citizens in Colleges and Universities,” historian Peter Stearns has written that Americans are “legendary” for being reluctant to learn another language. I suspect this may stem from knowledge of the fact that English is widely spoken and studied throughout the world. However, the fact remains that 75 percent of the world population does not speak English.

Research shows that motivation is essential to learning another language, whether that motivation stems from the desire to communicate with a relative or loved one in a foreign culture, or to better understand literature or works of art, such as an opera, that were originally produced in another language.