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October 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 2

Why Language Learning Matters

To thrive in a global economy and a multicultural society, U.S. students need fluency in at least one language other than English.

Current U.S. education policy focuses on a singularly important goal: to leave no child behind as we raise the achievement bar for all students and close the persistent achievement gap among groups of students. That policy, however, will neither close the achievement gap nor offer students a world-class education because it ignores the importance of communication in languages other than English.
Even schools in third-world countries are more effective than U.S. schools at producing students who demonstrate foreign language proficiency. A world-class education includes foreign lan-guage learning—a subject that many U.S. schools neglect. Moreover, among schools in the United States, there are disparities of equity and access to language learning that produce a language-proficiency gap. Yet, competence in languages and cultures is conspicuously absent from the U.S. education agenda.

Beyond Proficiency in English

All U.S. students need to be proficient and literate in English. In addition, students will need competence in at least one additional language and skills in cross-cultural interaction. The need for such competence, both in our current economy and in the one in which today's students will live and work, has been well documented. Research shows that multilingual societies have a competitive advantage over monolingual societies in international trade (Halliwell, 1999). Economic success and security in the United States depend on our ability to understand the information we gather about the current status of or coming changes in foreign economies, about research and development efforts elsewhere, or about threats to security—information that is unlikely to be in English. More than 70 agencies and offices of the U.S. government currently require language-proficient professionals, including the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency.
In an international service-sector economy, many Americans need to interact regularly with people who are unlikely to know English. Research shows that in the service industries, more than half of U.S. professionals working in a multicultural environment—whether in the U.S. or abroad—are linguistically unprepared to do so (Lena & Reason Moll, 2000). Language competence is important because, contrary to popular myth, everyone in the world does not speak English. In fact, a recent survey found that only 41 percent of Europeans speak English in addition to their native language (International Research Associates and the European Union, 2001). Despite the early dominance of English on the Internet, the majority of electronic communications, such as Web sites and e-mail, are now carried out in languages other than English. Within the United States, increasing linguistic diversity means that knowing languages other than English is helpful to service providers, marketers, and workers in diverse businesses.
Unlike in the United States, most education systems around the globe prepare their students to function in their national language and at least one additional language. A survey of 19 countries found that 16 provide widespread or compulsory foreign language instruction to students by the upper elementary grades (Pufahl, Rhodes, & Christian, 2001). In many of these countries, students may elect or be required to take an additional foreign language during the elementary school years. Europeans are paying substantial attention to multilingualism and the schools' role in developing a populace capable of communicating across multiple linguistic borders. But although European students are expected to be skilled in several languages, U.S. schools are barely able to produce students who have enough fluency in a language other than English to be polite tourists.

A Widening Gap

Not only does the omission of language and cultural education leave U.S. students behind their peers in other countries, but also it exacerbates the achievement gap within the United States. Many students come to school well prepared for the challenges of a rigorous academic program. Other students who are less prepared enter school already behind their peers. Educators have found that the knowledge and performance gap in evidence upon school entry has been difficult to close. In fact, the gap frequently widens in reading and mathematics achievement.
The gap is also evident in language learning. Across the United States, only about one in three elementary schools offers its students the opportunity to gain some measure of skill in another language. More than two-thirds of elementary schools offer their students no language learning opportunities at all. Even more disturbing is the disparity among the schools that do teach languages; more than half of private elementary schools offer a foreign language, but only about one-fourth of public elementary schools do. The inequities of access are even more pronounced in urban schools. About 25 percent of urban public elementary schools teach a foreign language compared with 65 percent of suburban private elementary schools. At the secondary level, the pattern is similar. Although 96 percent of suburban private secondary schools and 91 percent of urban private secondary schools teach foreign languages, only 81 percent of urban public secondary schools do. Within schools that teach languages, there are differences as well: 78 percent of private secondary schools report that half or more of their students are enrolled in foreign language courses, yet only 51 percent of public secondary schools report that at least half their students are taking a foreign language (Branaman & Rhodes, 1999).
Clearly, money matters. Even when schools have equal financial resources, disparities exist. Schools that serve students from high-poverty backgrounds need to devote more of their resources to addressing basic academic needs. In contrast, schools in low-poverty areas can use their resources to expand and enrich their offerings. The digital divide that separates poor and affluent communities has been well documented. Although much less has been said about the linguistic divide, it exists—and for many of the same reasons. Because the U.S. education agenda fails to address access to opportunities to develop high-level skills in languages other than English, the linguistic divide in our schools will likely be maintained or will expand.
The U.S. education agenda also ignores the inequities of access to the language competencies that students need. It will leave children in urban public schools trailing their peers in the suburbs, private schools, or other havens for those with choices. Whereas some students will have access to quality opportunities to develop competence in languages other than English, many will not. At present, most native speakers of English do not have the option of enrolling in a foreign language course until they enter high school, and the current education agenda is unlikely to change that. Even those students who already know other languages will be left behind those in other countries. In the United States, native speakers of languages other than English are rarely encouraged to maintain and extend their proficiency. Instead, schools work toward substituting proficiency in English for proficiency in students' native languages. This unwritten policy in our schools fosters monolingualism in English, even when bilingualism could be easily and inexpensively attained.

Enhancing Academic Performance

  • Bilingual students with strong competence in both languages are more likely to be successful readers (Lindholm- Leary, 2000);
  • Bilingualism enhances cognitive functioning, such as metalinguistic skills and divergent thinking (Robinson, 1998);
  • Study of a foreign language in the elementary grades has been associated with higher scores on standardized measures of reading and mathematics, even for students from high-poverty backgrounds (Caldas & Bourdeaux, 1999; Robinson, 1998).
Rather than diverting energy and attention from high-priority academic goals, inclusion of languages in the school curriculum furthers the education agenda.

Expanding the Agenda

  • Create a language education policy that addresses the serious needs of our schools. We can trace the success of language education programs outside the United States directly to strong policies at the national or regional levels. These policies determine who studies foreign languages (frequently, everyone); when they begin (generally, at an early age); and for how long (usually, for a long sequence of study). In many countries, foreign languages are part of the core curriculum. Additionally, some countries or regions have policies that focus on the maintenance of native languages.Not only have education systems around the world been proactive in developing language education policy, but they also have actively promoted such policies. Major initiatives by the Council of Europe have made substantial improvements in the quality of language learning and the extent of multilingualism among member nations. The Australian National Policy on Languages has been responsible for initiating, expanding, and supporting significantly more and better language programs for more than a decade. In England, the government has announced a major initiative to address the inadequacy of its education system in preparing its students to live in the modern world. The United States should do the same.Only a small number of U.S. states mandate or provide financial incentives for early language learning. And of the states that do, only a handful actually require the development of some degree of proficiency. Some enlightened districts and schools involve all students in language learning. These are sound first steps on the long road to parity with schools abroad.
  • Build on the assets that language minority students bring to school. The languages children learn at home are a valuable national resource. The federal government invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually to teach languages to adults who work in commerce, agriculture, public health, diplomacy, and national defense. At the same time, U.S. schools do little to capitalize on the skills that many of their students, already fluent speakers of other languages, have mastered by the early grades. Unfortunately, the education system has a questionable policy regarding the maintenance of heritage or indigenous languages for those who have developed their skills outside the school. By building on the heritage that speakers bring to school, however, we can help all students become highly proficient in both English and one additional language.
  • Respond to parent interest. Public surveys indicate parent interest in language learning opportunities (Brecht, Robinson, Robinson, & Rivers, unpublished), as do enrollments in magnet programs that feature foreign languages and the significant number of parents who pay out-of-pocket for their children to participate in language learning programs outside the regular school day.Public demand for language magnet schools usually exceeds the seats available. Media reports have documented the extremes to which parents will go to ensure a place for their child in many of these schools.Much has been discussed about the rights of parents to choose the kind of education program most appropriate for their children. For some time, public schools of choice, such as public charter schools and magnet programs, have flourished when languages have been included in the curriculum. Excellent language magnet programs can be found in Cincinnati, Ohio; Montgomery County, Maryland; Portland, Oregon; Lexington, Kentucky; and San Diego, California. Among the nation's most successful programs to promote desegregration have been immersion programs in which students can attain very high levels of foreign language proficiency (Met, 1992). Montgomery County's (Md.) total immersion magnet programs began in the 1970s and are currently housed at Maryvale, Sligo Creek, and Rock Forest elementary schools. Students in the French immersion program at Sligo Creek, for example, receive their subject matter instruction in French. In grades K–3, French is the only language used in the classrooms. In 4th grade, students receive instruction in English twice a week for 45 minutes during the second half of the school year. In 5th grade, students are given instruction in English for approximately three and a half hours each week. Art, music, and physical education are conducted in English. A 1996 internal study found that the immersion students in the district performed academically (in English) as well as or better than comparison students. Immersion students also demonstrated high levels of proficiency in French or Spanish.In addition to magnet programs, numerous public charter schools offer foreign languages in their curriculum. Private schools are far more likely than public schools to offer languages, presumably because such offerings appeal to those seeking a high-quality school. Private school management companies, such as Edison Schools, include foreign language instruction in their core curriculum. Given the public interest in language learning and the increasing appeal of school choice, the U.S. Department of Education should encourage and expand public schools of choice that include or focus on languages.
  • Hold schools accountable for producing language-competent graduates. In large part, dollars tend to accompany accountability initiatives. With few exceptions, schools are not accountable for producing graduates with foreign language competence. Because high-stakes accountability and the national and state assessments that go with them have focused on reading, mathematics, social studies, and science, other subjects that are not tested have received little attention and few resources. For example, dollar investments in teacher professional development have been far greater in reading, science, and mathematics than in languages. Our schools should not only produce language-competent graduates—they should receive support to do so and be held accountable for the outcomes of the resulting programs.
  • Acknowledge the vital role that languages play in an information-based economy. No one doubts that students must attain the highest levels of competence in mathematics and the sciences to thrive in a global economy. Language competence is also vitally important in a globalized economy that depends on easy access to information, in whichever language it may be available. Languages should be part of the core curriculum in elementary, middle, and high school.

Preparing for the 21st Century

It is almost a cliché to point out that education must prepare our students to lead and work in tomorrow's world. The past decades have brought technological advances and changes in the political landscape, and we can only assume that the world our students will inhabit will be unimaginably different from what teachers and parents have known. We can predict with some certainty, however, that communication across current linguistic and national borders will continue to increase as a matter of political and economic necessity. Of course, we cannot predict with precision which languages our students will need to know. We can, however, be sure that unless U.S. students are prepared with an education comparable to the best that schools around the world offer—one that includes foreign language study—we will have failed to achieve our goal to leave no child behind.

Branaman, L., & Rhodes, N. C. (1999).Foreign language instruction in the United States: A national survey of elementary and secondary schools. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Brecht, R., Robinson, J. L., Robinson, J. P., & Rivers, W. Americans' attitudes towards language and language policy. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Caldas, S. J., & Bourdeaux, N. (1999). Poverty, race and foreign language immersion: Predictors of math and English language arts performance. Learning Languages, 5(1), 4–15.

Halliwell, J. (1999). Language and trade. In A. Breton (Ed.), Exploring the economics of language. Ottawa, Ontario: Department of Cultural Heritage.

International Research Associates and the European Union. (2001). Les Européens et les langues (Eurobaromètre 54 Spécial). Brussels: Author.

Lena, M., & Reason Moll, J. (2000). The globalization of the professions in the United States and Canada: A survey and analysis. Washington, DC: The Center for Quality Assurance in International Education.

Lindholm-Leary, K. (2000). Biliteracy for a global society: An idea book on dual language education. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Met, M. (1992). Second language learning in magnet school settings. In W. Grabe (Ed.), Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (Vol. 13). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pufahl, I., Rhodes, N., & Christian, D. (2001). Foreign language teaching: What the United States can learn from other countries. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Robinson, D. W. (1998). The cognitive, academic, and attitudinal benefits of early language learning. In M. Met (Ed.), Critical Issues in Early Language Learning. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman Addison Wesley.

Myriam Met has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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