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Languages in the U.S. Educational System 

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   Foreign Language Study in U.S. Schools and Universities

The overall picture of foreign language instruction at the elementary and secondary levels in 2008 showed few, if any, improvements over the past two decades. There is serious concern about the limited number of long-sequence K-12 language programs needed to achieve proficiency in a foreign language. There is also a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots. A signifiant number of elementary and middle school students, especially in rural and low socio-economic schools, do not have access to foreign language instruction at all. The results of the National Survey of Foreign Language Teaching in U.S. Schools conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics in 2008 revealed the following:

  • The percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction dropped significantly from 1997 to 2008 from 31% to 25% in elementary schools, and from 75% to 58% in middle schools. The drop occurred primarily in public schools.
  • The percentage of high schools offering foreign languages between 1997 and 2008 stayed steady at about 93%.
  • Nearly one-third of elementary and secondary schools with language programs reported that language teaching had been negatively affected by No Child Left Behind, because focus on reading and mathematics had drawn resources away from foreign languages which were not included in the law’s accountability measures.
  • Schools in rural and poor areas were less likely to offer foreign language instruction than those in more affluent areas. The disparity between public and private elementary school language programs increased exponentially, with private schools offering language programs at a much higher rate.
  • Spanish continued to be the most commonly taught language with a significant increase in the number of programs at the elementary level (from 79% in 1997 to 88% in 2008). At the same time, the number of programs offering instruction in French and German declined significantly at both the elementary and secondary levels. The percentage of schools offering Chinese and Arabic increased slightly at both the elementary and secondary levels, although the percentage of these programs was extremely low. Japanese and Russian programs experienced a decline.
  • Only 39% of elementary schools with foreign language programs had some type of articulation from elementary to middle school instruction. However, there was a significant increase in articulation from middle to high school (from 24% in 1997 to 59% in 2008).
  • At the elementary level, the most common foreign language program was an exploratory one, i.e., one that provides an introductory exposure to the language. 14% of elementary schools followed an immersion model. Most secondary school language programs offered standard instruction in speaking, listening, reading, writing, and culture. There was a slight increase in Advanced Placement language classes (from 16% in 1997 to 21% in 2008).
  • There was a notable increase in the use of technology such as the Internet, computer-assisted instruction, satellite broadcasts, interactive television, video conferencing. .
  • The percentage of teachers who incorporated national or state standards into their curriculum increased from 25% to 76% in elementary schools, and from 31% to 89% in secondary schools.
  • The survey showed an increase in proficiency-oriented language instruction and assessment.
  • The overwhelming majority of secondary school teachers were certified, but the percentage of uncertified teachers at the elementary level increased from 17% in 1997 to 31% in 2008.

   Foreign language teaching in U.S. institutions of higher education

The 2006 MLA Foreign language Enrollment Survey identified 219 languages taught at U.S. institutions of higher education in 2006. Out of a total enrollment of 17,648,000 students, only 1,522,770 (8.6%) took foreign language courses.

Year
Total Post-secondary Enrollments
Modern Foreign Language Enrollments
Percent enrolled in language courses
2002 16,611,711 1,347,036 8.1%
2006 17,648,000 1,522,770 8.6%

In 2006, Spanish (52%), French (13%), German (6%), Italian (5%), and the classical languages (4%) accounted for 80% of the total language enrollments. In contrast, only 10% of students studied Japanese (4%),  Chinese (3%), Russian (1.5%), Arabic (1.5%), Portuguese (1%), and Korean (0.5%) all of which are considered to be critically important.

   Enrollments in Top 15 Languages Other Than English

( U.S. Institutions of Higher Education in the Fall of 2002 and 2006 )

Languages

Fall 2002 enrollments

Fall 2006 enrollments
% change
Spanish 746,267 822,985 10.9%
French 201,979 206,426 2.2%
German 91,100 94,264 3.5%
Italian 63,899 78,829 29.7%
Japanese 52,238 66,605 27,5%
Chinese 34,153 51,582 51.0%
Russian 23,921 24,845 3.9%
Arabic 10,584 23,974 126.5%
Modern Hebrew 8,619 9,612 11.5%
Portuguese 8,385 10,267 22.4%
Korean 5,211 7,145 37.1%
American Sign Language 60,781 78,829 29.7%
Latin 29,841 32,191 7.9%
Ancient Greek 20,376 22,849 12.1%
Biblical Hebrew 14,183 14,140 -0.3%
204 0ther languages 25,716 33,728 31.2%
Total enrollments 1,397,253 1,577,810 12.9%

According to the 2006 MLA Foreign language Enrollment Survey, overall enrollments in languages other than English rose by 12.9%. In both two- and four-year colleges Spanish remained the most taught language. The number of students studying Spanish far surpassed French, the second runner-up, and German, the third most studied language. American Sign Language surpassed French and ranked second at two-year institutions. As opposed to the modest increases they have shown in four-year colleges, in two-year colleges FrenchGermanRussianLatinHebrew, and Ancient Greek saw a drop in enrollments in 2006. The largest increases at four-year colleges between 2002 and 2006 were in Arabic (126.5%) and Chinese (51.0%). However, even with with these significant increases, the total number of students studying these languages remained very small.

   Enrollments in introductory versus advanced language courses

The differential in enrollments between lower and upper-level courses in U.S. institutions of higher learning was quite dramatic. For instance, for every eight students enrolled in first- and second-year Arabic, there was only one student enrolled in an advanced Arabic course. Chinese did somewhat better with a ratio of 9:2, whereas Spanish and Japanese posted a ratio of 5:1. When all institutions of higher learning are considered together, upper-level classes constituted over 20% of all undergraduate student enrollments in just five languages: RussianPortugueseGermanFrench, and Korean. When only four-year colleges and universities are considered, eight languages have 20% or more of enrollments in upper-level courses in Chinese,FrenchGermanJapaneseKoreanPortugueseRussian, and Spanish.

   Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs)

According to the 2006 MLA Foreign language Enrollment Survey, only 2% of students enrolled in language courses studied the other 204 languages taught at U.S. institutions of higher education. These languages are commonly referred to as the Less Commonly Taught Languages, or LCTLs. Only 45 LCTLs had enrollments of more than 100 students. Only 9 LCTLs had enrollments over 1,000, and only 27 of the 45 LCTLs were taught at 2-year institutions. A mere handful of students studied the critically important languages of the Middle East such as Persian (2,053), Turkish (624), Hindi/Urdu(2,683), Dari (4) and Pashto (103). The table below lists LCTLs with enrollments of 100 or more. Languages with enrollments of 1,000 or more are highlighted.

Language
2-year institutions
4-year institutions
Graduate schools
Total
Aramaic 26 1,812 718 2,556
Armenian 489 390 3 882
Cantonese 96 82 0 178
Cherokee 23 283 0 306
Chinese, Classical 0 101 12 113
Choctaw 4 164 0 168
Czech 0 302 27 329
Dakota/Lakota/Nakoda 60 595 9 664
Dari 100 4 0 104
Dutch 0 423 22 445
Farsi/Persian 629 1,526 141 2,053
Finnish 4 145 1 150
Greek, Modern 13 1,217 64 1,294
Haitian Creole 0 165 6 171
Hawaiian 307 1,320 27 1,654
Hindi and Urdu 74 2,409 200 2,683
Hmong 149 253 0 402
Hungarian 5 230 3 238
Indonesian 10 234 57 301
Inupiaq 58 51 0 109
Irish 0 398 1 399
Muskogee 0 179 0 179
Navajo 429 218 2 649
Norwegian 0 774 8 782
Ojibwe 167 466 0 633
Pashto 100 3 0 103
Pilipino/Tagalog 671 895 3 1,569
Polish 155 1,177 47 1,379
Punjabi 0 103 0 103
Romanian 0 122 12 134
Samoan 17 263 0 280
Serbian and Croatian 30 268 28 319
Slavic, Old Church 0 121 12 133
Swahli 25 2,075 63 2,163
Swedish 0 693 29 722
Tamil 0 77 23 100
Thai 10 266 31 307
Tibetan 0 56 64 120
Turkish 10 531 83 624
Ukrainian 0 95 8 103
Vietnamese 1,203 1,261 21 2,485
Wolof 0 116 6 122
Yiddish 0 925 44 969
Yoruba 0 257 8 265
Zulu 0 123 9 132
   What this means

There is a shortage of language professionals in the U.S. diplomatic corps, military, and intelligence agencies. The national deficiency in the languages and cultures of critical areas around the world is compromising American security and business interests at home and abroad. However, unless foreign languages are incorporated into the core curriculum, and unless the learning of foreign languages becomes a priority in the K-12 curriculum, it is unlikely that the American educational system will produce graduates who can communicate effectively in a foreign language. As the need for advanced competency in a wide range of languages becomes more pressing, it is increasingly apparent that advanced proficiency in a foreign language requires an early start and sustained study over long periods of time, from K–12 through college and graduate school, both in domestic and in study-abroad programs.

10 Responses to Languages in the U.S. Educational System

  1. Lily Yip

    I spent 3 years researching and writing the book “Learn Chinese In Sequence” and finished in 2007. As a result, I discovered that it wasted my time. There is no way to develop Chinese language teaching or learning in US for elementary school or for children. (lyp4church@yahoo.com)

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Can you explain why you came to this conclusion?

       
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    • Irene Thompson

      Please communicate in English, the language of this website.

       
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  8. Jacques du Plessis

    Afrikaans is taught at UWM, Yale, BYU and UCLA

     

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