Foreign language instruction meets a critical need

teaching6Across the United States, foreign language programs are shrinking or disappearing altogether as school leaders face budget concerns and competing priorities.

According to an article in Forbes magazine, for instance, the percentage of public and private elementary schools offering foreign language programs declined from 31 percent in 1997 to 25 percent in 2008.

Advocates of foreign language instruction say online programs can help offset this decline. That’s important, they say, because learning a foreign language is an important skill as our society and our workforce become increasingly global.

According to a study conducted this year by International Data Corp. and commissioned by Microsoft, “bilingual/multilingual” ranked No. 8 on the list of skills most desired by U.S. employers.

That’s a reflection of the fact that most businesses today have employees and/or customers around the globe—as well as the critical importance of communications skills to employers. (In fact, “oral and written communications skills” ranked No. 1 on IDC’s list.)

But foreign language skills aren’t just important for employability; they’re also critical to U.S. security interests.

Last year, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations issued a report, titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” that called the decline in foreign language instruction “a national security issue.”

“The lack of language skills and civic and global awareness among American citizens increasingly jeopardizes their ability to interact with local and global peers or participate meaningfully in business, diplomatic, and military situations,” the report said.

The U.S. isn’t producing enough foreign-language speakers to staff important posts in the Foreign Service, the intelligence community, or American companies, the report noted. It cited a separate report from the Government Accountability Office that found the State Department faces “foreign language shortfalls in areas of strategic interest,” leaving the U.S. “crippled in its ability to communicate effectively with others in diplomatic, military, intelligence, and business contexts.”

What’s more, the report said, students’ failure to learn about global cultures also has serious consequences. A recent report by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences noted that “cultural learning” and “cultural agility” are critical skills in the military.

These skills allow soldiers to “correctly read and assess situations they encounter,” the council’s report said. They also give soldiers “the tools they need to respond effectively and in line with the norms of the local culture” and help them “anticipate and respond to resistances or challenges that arise.”

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