Yet there’s another reality that needs our attention: Foreign-language speaking in American schools is on a one-way street. We’ve turned the spigots on full blast on English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs, with impractical undivided attention and money going to children and adults for whom Spanish is their native tongue.
And even though there is no 21st century George Wallace blocking “outsiders” from learning on American college campuses, we still should be mindful.
What about our kids who want to speak and write fluently in a foreign language? Young people planning to be translators or teach English in a foreign land? Young people planning to join the Peace Corps or their church’s mission to a far-off land? Young people who would like to be able to say on applications for college, internships, scholarships, or employment that they can speak a language other than English?
Or how about those young people who simply could understand the words to be spoken by Pope Francis next month in the U.S. without the benefit of a translator?
And that leads to other questions: Are we training our English-speaking students to become language and cultural translators?
Mexico certainly is. In fact, the Mexican government has a program called Proyecta 100,000, and its goal is to have 100,000 Mexican students studying in the U.S. by 2018. The University of Nebraska-Omaha is one school embracing the offer in the name of diversity, probably because it already educates students from Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Japan, among other countries.
As the clock ticks on Mexico meeting its 2018 goal, there’s another concern: The U.S. government has lost track of tens of thousands of foreign students who came here to study and then took jobs, often in violation of the terms of their student visas. According to a 46-page report by the
General Accountability Office, we don’t know where the foreign students are, what they’re up to, where they worked and/or how to catch up with them.
Pope Francis speaks and converses in several languages and is expected to deliver his remarks primarily in Spanish during his U.S. visit next month. That will surely please the more than 32 million Hispanics living in America who can speak English proficiently.
According to a Pew Research study, English-speaking Hispanics accounted for 68 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population in 2013, compared to 59 percent in 2000. The study attributed the increase to the growing number of U.S.-born Hispanics. In 2013, for example, there were nearly twice as many U.S.-born Hispanics as there were foreign-born, 35 million to 19 million, respectively.
Interestingly, as the U.S.-born Hispanic population was on the rise, enrollment in college foreign-language classes declined — by 100,000 between 2009 and 2013. The drop marked the first time since 1958 that enrollment in Spanish classes had fallen.
Most of us will rely on translators and English captioning to tell us what Francis says, and hope they make the correct cultural translation.
So what’s next? Well, we don’t know whether the next step being undertaken by academia and the federal government is going to lead to our public education policies giving our young people the foreign-language opportunities they need and deserve, but a study and recommendations are in the works.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is heading a national effort to look at language instruction from pre-K up the totem pole, which includes life-long learners. The effort was made at the behest of a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers, including Republicans Orrin Hatch and Leonard Lance, and Democrats Tammy Baldwin and Rush Holt.
The academy said in a statement: “In their request, the members of Congress asked the American Academy to undertake the new study to examine the following questions: ‘What actions should the nation take to ensure excellence in all languages as well as international education and research, including how we may more effectively use current resources to advance language attainment?’ and ‘How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans?’”
In calling for the Academy’s study, the members of Congress emphasized that U.S. society is increasingly multilingual, Americans are more engaged around the globe than ever before, and most of the major challenges and opportunities — from public health issues to the development of new technologies — require international understanding and cooperation. Yet, by some estimates, as many as 80 percent of Americans can only speak one language, while, by contrast, 50 percent of Europeans over the age of 15 are able to converse in a second language.
“Language learning should be among our highest educational priorities in the 21st century,” American Academy President Jonathan Fanton said. “By reviewing existing practices and proposing new ideas, the Academy’s commission will advance the conversation about language education, focusing on a body of knowledge and a set of skills that will become more critical as communication between and among cultures increases.”
We often hear and read about the disparate academic and socioeconomic gaps among America’s races. We need to hear and read more about the foreign-language gap.
Government-sanctioned task forces sometimes makes things worse, which is precisely what government-directed integration did beginning in the 1950s.
As things now stand, teachers unions are not demanding a national effort to hire foreign-language instructors. My suspicion is because their rank-and-file can no more parlez francais than it can sprechen Deutsch.
Deborah Simmons can be reached at