The Decline of Foreign Languages in the U.S.

With English serving as the dominant lingua franca for everything from commerce to academia, Americans, as the world’s largest native Anglophones, are generally far less inclined to learn foreign languages than their European and Asian counterparts.

Indeed, as The Atlantic recently reported, cutting back on foreign language courses is not only a long-running — and steadily increasing — trend among elementary and middle schools, but it was even touted as a viable solution for freeing up time for more important lessons.

Hence the results of a Department of Education-funded study that found a precipitous drop in foreign language instructions the country. (On the bright side, about 91 percent of high schools still offer foreign language classes.)


Among public elementary schools alone, the decline was from an already-low 24 percent to a mere 15 percent; perhaps unsurprisingly, the drop was considerably steeper among rural schools.

As a 2012 article in Forbes points out, the problem is increasingly systemic, with schools suffering a shortage of qualified foreign language teachers, and universities shunting foreign language requirements and eliminating unpopular languages.

Moreover, regardless of English’s continued and foreseeable dominance on the global stage, multilingualism is of vital importance for both cognitive and practice reasons.

We need diplomats, intelligence and foreign policy experts, politicians, military leaders, business leaders, scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, historians, artists, and writers who are proficient in languages other than English.  And we need them to read and speak less commonly taught languages (for which funding has recently been cut by the federal government) that are essential to our strategic and economic interests, such as Farsi, Bengali, Vietnamese, Burmese and Indonesian.


The message is simple: in 1957, after the Russians launched Sputnik, Congress passed and President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act, which provided federal support for foreign language instruction as well as science education.  We may not be quite as frightened as we were during the height of the Cold War, but we must be just as resolute in designing a comprehensive approach to foreign language acquisition that will prepare the next generation of Americans for success in a highly competitive, tightly interconnected world.

Strategic and commercial concerns aside, there is quite a bit of evidence that knowing another language or two can have palpable benefits for the mind. According to a Duke University interview with several foreign language experts, children who learn languages, especially in their earliest years, can reap a lifetime of dividends in a number of different aptitudes and areas.

Children who learn a foreign language beginning in early childhood demonstrate certain cognitive advantages over children who do not. Research conducted in Canada with young children shows that those who are bilingual develop the concept of “object permanence” at an earlier age. Bilingual students learn sooner that an object remains the same, even though the object has a different name in another language. For example, a foot remains a foot and performs the function of a foot, whether it is labeled a foot in English or un pied in French.

Additionally, foreign language learning is much more a cognitive problem solving activity than a linguistic activity, overall. Studies have shown repeatedly that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind in young children. Students who are learning a foreign language out-score their non-foreign language learning peers in the verbal and, surprisingly to some, the math sections of standardized tests. This relationship between foreign language study and increased mathematical skill development, particularly in the area of problem solving, points once again to the fact that second language learning is more of a cognitive than linguistic activity.


Every piece of research in the field points to the benefits of starting a second language as early as three years of age. The other key to becoming proficient in another language is a long, continuous contact with the language. Until we have a well articulated PK-16 second language “buy-in” from legislators, school boards, administrators, and parents, the U.S. will continue to lag behind other nations, thus prolonging monolingualism.
What are your thoughts? Are foreign languages an important part of any curriculum? Or should they be shunted from an already crowded day in favor of other courses? Beyond education policy, is knowing a foreign language a valuable endeavor? I am inclined to think so, given the wealth of knowledge in the world that is untranslated (and in some cases, untranslatable, given the uniqueness of certain concepts and ideas within certain languages).

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