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The Foreign Language Numbers Game

My state university has just announced that it is going to lower the core requirements for graduation from 66 hours to 35.

The reason?

To make it easier for students to transfer from two-year institutions.

One of the requirements that will now be left up to individual departments is the foreign language requirement. What that means is that it will be possible for a student to earn a degree without having been exposed to even two years of a foreign language.

SUNY at Albany is shutting down its degree programs in French, Russian, Italian, and the classics. The reason? Not a lot of students are choosing the programs. Some want them, but “not enough.”

Blaming “the economy,” many secondary and post-secondary schools are cutting their programs down to one foreign language only, and that language is Spanish.

Now, Spanish is a very fine language. It’s the native language of about 350 million people. It has a rich literature. It’s the official language of most of the countries to the south of us. It’s the official language of Equatorial Guinea and, of course, Spain.

As Spanish-speaking immigrants continue to swell the U.S. population, the ability to speak Spanish is certainly an important qualification for public sector employees and anyone else who wants to interact with Spanish-speaking residents.

But Spanish should not be the only foreign language offered to the U.S. high school population. And universities so poor they can’t afford to offer programs in classics and a reasonable number of modern languages probably ought to downgrade to the status of technical school.

Continuing to treat foreign language study as some kind of “frill” is outrageously, unbelievably irresponsible on the part of professional educators.

Allowing students to graduate from high school without the ability to speak a foreign language at a basic level is educational malpractice.

Conferring university degrees on students who cannot use at least one foreign language makes a travesty of higher education.

As the U.S. Department of Education site at ED.gov points out, foreign language skills are a matter of national security. As useful as Spanish and English may be, they are not the only languages spoken in the world.

The acquisition of a foreign language by American students should not be optional.

French children begin their formal study of a foreign language in what would be sixth grade here. Two years later, they begin the study of a second foreign language while continuing with the first.

In China, English is a compulsory subject for all Chinese primary school students. In the U. S. a tiny percentage of students study any foreign language. The few who do rarely acquire more than a smattering. I know from experience that some high school counselors discourage students from taking more than two years of a foreign language because “two years is all they need” to meet the college prep requirement. And few U.S. foreign language teachers have the necessary proficiency to conduct their classes entirely in the target language.

Foreign language study should begin in elementary school. It should be possible–and common–for students to graduate from high school having completed seven years of one foreign language and five years of a second one.

More than seven billion people live on the Earth (7,048,599,286 on the World Clock last I looked).

Of those seven billion, about 480 million speak English as a first language, and about 350 million speak Spanish. That leaves 6,080,080,808 people who speak some other language.

French is the official or national language of 39 countries on several continents. Mandarin Chinese is spoken by 873 million people; Arabic has about 206 million native speakers and Japanese about 126 million. Native speakers of Hindi and Urdu number about 430 million. The United States has important social and economic ties with the speakers of those languages.

A country as large and as globally involved as the United States has need of citizens who are fluent in various languages. One example of a dangerous deficiency in this area is the lack of U.S.-born Arabic speakers at a time when national security and diplomacy is entwined with Arab countries and Arab culture.

Foreign language study is not the preserve of the “college-bound student.” It’s for every child in this polyglot world. And the earlier it begins, the better for all of us.

2 comments to The Foreign Language Numbers Game

  • Oriana

    Lawrence Miller
    November 8, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    “Hear, hear. Having a passable knowledge of German and some history of the main countries where it is widely spoken HAVE served to enrich my life in incalculable and unforeseen ways.”

    Well, in English, it’s “Having a passable knowledge…HAS served”

  • Hear, hear. Having a passable knowledge of German and some history of the main countries where it is widely spoken have served to enrich my life in incalculable and unforeseen ways.

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