CINCINNATI (AP) — American students are falling far behind their international counterparts in learning second languages, creating economic disadvantages for U.S. businesses and raising national security concerns.
Virtually all European and Asian elementary students study a second language, but 97 percent of Ohio and Kentucky students do not because their schools don’t offer foreign language programs.
American companies lose an estimated $2 billion each year because of employees’ inadequate language skills and poor cultural competence, according to the Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C.
“It’s always been a good thing to know more about the world and to speak another language, but now it’s become an issue of our economic security, our national security, and our public diplomacy,” says committee President Charles Kolb. “Speaking a second language gives our young people an edge in terms of the competition we’re facing around the globe. Believe me, you win kudos if you’re negotiating in another country and you’re fluent in that language.”
The U.S. State and Defense departments have called languages like Arabic and Farsi critical to national security and economic development and are infusing $750 million into their study.
Some Ohio schools have added Chinese, Japanese, and Russian, but language experts say it doesn’t make up for the fact that the country’s approach to language education has been too little, too late, and too disjointed.
Fewer than 2,600 of Ohio’s 320,000 juniors and seniors take Advanced Placement tests in a foreign language, “a sign that most students do not commit to the most challenging, long-term study of a foreign language,” said a 2007 report by Ohio’s Foreign Language Advisory Council.
Five decades of research shows that kids learn a second language best when they study it early and over an extended period. But fewer than 5 percent of elementary students in Ohio and the United States have access to a foreign language program, and the average high school language student studies only two years.
“As a nation, we don’t put our money where research and good practice tell us to,” says Kathryn Lorenz, associate professor of French at the University of Cincinnati. “We know that students who start language study early do much better than those who start in high school.”
Other countries have emphasized the importance of their students becoming bilingual and multilingual speakers by requiring foreign languages in primary school. Longer school days or years often help make the language studies possible.
Neither Ohio nor Kentucky requires foreign language for high school graduation, and neither state includes it on statewide exams.
Ohio’s education department and legislature have debated requiring foreign language education for many years, but we run into funding and staffing obstacles, said Deborah Robinson, world languages consultant for the Ohio Department of Education.
“One of the big issues is teacher capacity,” she said. “Ohio graduates around 200 to 225 foreign language teachers per year, but it doesn’t produce even enough Spanish teachers to meet the need, let alone Chinese or Arabic.”
China, meanwhile, is making English a priority. Officials are recruiting native English speakers to teach the language to kindergartners.
Each year, 20 million more Chinese learn English, a trend that experts believe will lead to there being more Chinese English speakers than native English speakers by 2029. ♦