I’m Sorry, What?: The Shortcomings of Foreign Language Education in the U.S.

Examining the American education system through Spanish class failure.

by Gabrielle Sierra

My name is Gabrielle and I am a monolinguist.

I speak English and only English, (unless Brooklyn-accent slang has recently been accepted as an official language,) and I really hate having to admit it.

I took Spanish courses in school, but, like many American kids and teens, I only learned as much as I needed in order to pass exams. My motivation for learning another language was so low that I didn’t even think to take advantage of speaking Spanish with my Puerto Rican father. As soon as I had completed the minimum requirements for New York City I said “adios” to everything I had learned, and now live with tremendous regret.

When I look back, I can’t help but wonder; would I have walked away so easily had I known, really known, how incredibly important it is to expand beyond your own native language? To communicate with others, to learn about different cultures, and most importantly, to correctly order and enjoy a coffee or beer in another country?

According to a 2015 article in The Atlantic, less than 1 percent of adults in the U.S. are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in school. This may be because the U.S. does not have a national requirement that students learn a foreign language at all and many educational institutions begin language studies far too late in the game.

The number of K-12 students enrolled in foreign-language courses between 2007-2008 was 8.9 million students just 18.5 percent of all K-12 public school kids, according to a survey published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Martha Abbott, the Executive Director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, recently stressed the need to view language instruction as a mandatory part of the American education system while speaking at a June 2017 panel.

“We need to start early and stay long,” Abbott said. “We often say we need to make sure that languages are included in the school curricula just the way math is. If you told a parent, oh, your child isn’t going to start learning math until eighth grade, I think we’d have a revolution on our hands. That’s what happens with languages. You really don’t have the opportunity in most cases to learn a language until middle school. ”

According to a 2012 report from Eurostat, in most European countries, it is compulsory that children begin learning their first foreign language between six- and nine years old. In Belgium and in Spain, preschool students start learning a foreign language as early as three years old.

Perhaps this is why English is spoken in over 101 countries and is the most studied foreign language in the world. Over 1.5 billion English-language learners across the globe have allowed me (and English speakers like me) to rely on other people’s bilingualism instead of pursuing my own.

Can we skate by in many circumstances with nothing more than Google translate and an apologetic smile? Sure. But learning just the surface words of a language is not only shortchanging us for obvious things like travel and job options, but it’s also keeping us from really delving into other cultures and histories.

A 2017 study conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences came to a similar conclusion, stressing that it was crucial to work on partnerships that would encourage students to “learn languages by experiencing other cultures and immersing themselves in languages as they are used in everyday interactions across all segments of society.”

That means opportunities like study abroad and participating in exchange programs are crucial in this process, often providing students with their first real taste of another culture. (Unless you are like me, who studied abroad in Australia, and only learned to say “no worries”.) It is this level of comfort and exposure that allows people to speak from a place of understanding versus snap judgement from afar.

Unfortunately, only 7 percent of U.S. college students are enrolled in a language course. That means that not only are we forgetting everything we learned, but we also don’t give ourselves the opportunity to dive back in and really advance.

A study by The Modern Language Association of America found that in 2013, the ratio of undergraduates that enrolled in introductory Spanish language courses as opposed to advanced Spanish language courses was 5:1. More extreme still, the ratio of American Sign Language introductory enrollments to advanced were 9:1, and the ratio of Italian introductory course enrollments to advanced was 11:1.

The U.S. education system’s approach to foreign language instruction also trickles down in yet another crucial way; a lack of people interested in becoming foreign-language teachers.

“There is not an adequate supply,” Abbott said during the June panel. “The states report every year to the Department of Education their shortages in teachers by subject areas. And for 2016-17, this current school year, 44 states plus the District of Columbia said they had a language teacher shortage.”

Of course changing that attitude is easier said than done, especially in the face of possible education cuts. Language classes are often the first to be removed from schools when budgets need to be tightened. Title VI grants and Foreign Language Assistance Programs also face cuts in funding on a regular basis. In fact, we may see language courses drop even lower on the priority scale sooner rather than later under the Trump administration.

In a world where we are all striving to be connected, woke, and hip to the latest news, this self-made American language barrier feels all the more shocking. I try to remain hopeful that the next generation of digitally-minded American students will recognize the importance of global understanding and connectivity through language far more than I did. That they will appreciate and push for the language learning opportunities to arrive and remain as a staple of the U.S. curriculum.

As for me, I just downloaded Duolingo and have been embarrassingly pronouncing words aloud in Spanish during my commute, so it is never too late.