Languages in the U.S. Educational System
The overall picture of foreign language instruction at the elementary and secondary levels in 2008 showed few, if any, improvements over the past two decades. There is serious concern about the limited number of long-sequence K-12 language programs needed to achieve proficiency in a foreign language. There is also a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots. A signifiant number of elementary and middle school students, especially in rural and low socio-economic schools, do not have access to foreign language instruction at all. The results of the National Survey of Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics in 2008 revealed the following:
- The percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction dropped significantly from 1997 to 2008 from 31% to 25% in elementary schools, and from 75% to 58% in middle schools. The drop occurred primarily in public schools.
- The percentage of high schools offering foreign languages between 1997 and 2008 stayed steady at about 93%.
- Nearly one-third of elementary and secondary schools with language programs reported that language teaching had been negatively affected by No Child Left Behind, because focus on reading and mathematics had drawn resources away from foreign languages which were not included in the law’s accountability measures.
- Schools in rural and poor areas were less likely to offer foreign language instruction than those in more affluent areas. The disparity between public and private elementary school language programs increased exponentially, with private schools offering language programs at a much higher rate.
- Spanish continued to be the most commonly taught language with a significant increase in the number of programs at the elementary level (from 79% in 1997 to 88% in 2008). At the same time, the number of programs offering instruction in French and German declined significantly at both the elementary and secondary levels. The percentage of schools offering Chinese and Arabic increased slightly at both the elementary and secondary levels, although the percentage of these programs was extremely low. Japanese and Russian programs experienced a decline.
- Only 39% of elementary schools with foreign language programs had some type of articulation from elementary to middle school instruction. However, there was a significant increase in articulation from middle to high school (from 24% in 1997 to 59% in 2008).
- At the elementary level, the most common foreign language program was an exploratory one, i.e., one that provides an introductory exposure to the language. 14% of elementary schools followed an immersion model. Most secondary school language programs offered standard instruction in speaking, listening, reading, writing, and culture. There was a slight increase in Advanced Placement language classes (from 16% in 1997 to 21% in 2008).
- There was a notable increase in the use of technology such as the Internet, computer-assisted instruction, satellite broadcasts, interactive television, video conferencing. .
- The percentage of teachers who incorporated national or state standards into their curriculum increased from 25% to 76% in elementary schools, and from 31% to 89% in secondary schools.
- The survey showed an increase in proficiency-oriented language instruction and assessment.
- The overwhelming majority of secondary school teachers were certified, but the percentage of uncertified teachers at the elementary level increased from 17% in 1997 to 31% in 2008.
The 2006 MLA Foreign language Enrollment Survey identified 219 languages taught at U.S. institutions of higher education in 2006. Out of a total enrollment of 17,648,000 students, only 1,522,770 (8.6%) took foreign language courses.
Total Post-secondary Enrollments
Modern Foreign Language Enrollments
Percent enrolled in language courses
In 2006, Spanish (52%), French (13%), German (6%), Italian (5%), and the classical languages (4%) accounted for 80% of the total language enrollments. In contrast, only 10% of students studied Japanese (4%), Chinese (3%), Russian (1.5%), Arabic (1.5%), Portuguese (1%), and Korean (0.5%) all of which are considered to be critically important.
( U.S. Institutions of Higher Education in the Fall of 2002 and 2006 )
Fall 2002 enrollments
Fall 2006 enrollments
|American Sign Language||60,781||78,829||29.7%|
|204 0ther languages||25,716||33,728||31.2%|
According to the 2006 MLA Foreign language Enrollment Survey, overall enrollments in languages other than English rose by 12.9%. In both two- and four-year colleges Spanish remained the most taught language. The number of students studying Spanish far surpassed French, the second runner-up, and German, the third most studied language. American Sign Language surpassed French and ranked second at two-year institutions. As opposed to the modest increases they have shown in four-year colleges, in two-year colleges French, German, Russian, Latin, Hebrew, and Ancient Greek saw a drop in enrollments in 2006. The largest increases at four-year colleges between 2002 and 2006 were in Arabic (126.5%) and Chinese (51.0%). However, even with with these significant increases, the total number of students studying these languages remained very small.
The differential in enrollments between lower and upper-level courses in U.S. institutions of higher learning was quite dramatic. For instance, for every eight students enrolled in first- and second-year Arabic, there was only one student enrolled in an advanced Arabic course. Chinese did somewhat better with a ratio of 9:2, whereas Spanish and Japanese posted a ratio of 5:1. When all institutions of higher learning are considered together, upper-level classes constituted over 20% of all undergraduate student enrollments in just five languages: Russian, Portuguese, German, French, and Korean. When only four-year colleges and universities are considered, eight languages have 20% or more of enrollments in upper-level courses in Chinese,French, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
According to the 2006 MLA Foreign language Enrollment Survey, only 2% of students enrolled in language courses studied the other 204 languages taught at U.S. institutions of higher education. These languages are commonly referred to as the Less Commonly Taught Languages, or LCTLs. Only 45 LCTLs had enrollments of more than 100 students. Only 9 LCTLs had enrollments over 1,000, and only 27 of the 45 LCTLs were taught at 2-year institutions. A mere handful of students studied the critically important languages of the Middle East such as Persian (2,053), Turkish (624), Hindi/Urdu(2,683), Dari (4) and Pashto (103). The table below lists LCTLs with enrollments of 100 or more. Languages with enrollments of 1,000 or more are highlighted.
|Hindi and Urdu||74||2,409||200||2,683|
|Serbian and Croatian||30||268||28||319|
|Slavic, Old Church||0||121||12||133|
There is a shortage of language professionals in the U.S. diplomatic corps, military, and intelligence agencies. The national deficiency in the languages and cultures of critical areas around the world is compromising American security and business interests at home and abroad. However, unless foreign languages are incorporated into the core curriculum, and unless the learning of foreign languages becomes a priority in the K-12 curriculum, it is unlikely that the American educational system will produce graduates who can communicate effectively in a foreign language. As the need for advanced competency in a wide range of languages becomes more pressing, it is increasingly apparent that advanced proficiency in a foreign language requires an early start and sustained study over long periods of time, from K–12 through college and graduate school, both in domestic and in study-abroad programs.