foreign languages

Report warns a decline in language learning could spell bad news for U.S.

The need for language learning is important for success in business and international affairs, a new report indicates

A diminishing share of United States residents speak languages other than English–a trend that could have important consequences for business, international affairs, and intellectual exchange, according to a new report from American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Academy’s new report, The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait, summarizes the nation’s current language capacity, focusing on the U.S. education system. A joint venture of the Academy’s Commission on Language Learning and Humanities Indicators, the report draws on the most recent national, state, and local data sources available to draw a more complete picture of language use in the nation.

“This very important work is ongoing and we look forward to the Commission’s final report and recommendations that will be available in February [2017],” said Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The report estimates that only 20 percent of U.S. residents can speak a language other than English, and it highlights data showing how quickly facility in a language other than English fades in immigrant households, even among those who immigrated to the U.S. as children.

Next page: Important implications for U.S. language learning

It also points to evidence of the dwindling of language education at every level, from early childhood education to the nation’s colleges, with declines in the number of K–12 schools teaching languages, as well as the number of students taking language courses in college.

Varying local and state policies for language education have resulted in dramatically different language enrollments at the K–12 level, with the share of students taking languages as high as 51 percent in New Jersey, and less than 13 percent in eight states.

The report also aims to offer a more nuanced picture of language skills by highlighting a continuum of skills and expertise—ranging from a limited ability to speak or understand a language to advanced capacity to speak, read, and write in another language. It notes sizable gaps in current data—pointing to the need for further data collection.

The forthcoming 2017 report of the Academy’s Commission on Language Learning will respond to this data by offering concrete recommendations and strategies to improve language education so that every U.S. citizen can share in the rewards and benefits of learning a language other than English.

The Commission will highlight an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world—even as English continues to be the lingua franca for international business and diplomacy.

Laura Ascione

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