There’s one deficit you won’t see President Donald Trump tweeting about anytime soon: the language deficit.
How many of our children will study a language this year? It’s no secret that language education in the United States lags behind peer countries for elementary and tertiary education, but the actual numbers are staggering. According to a 2017 report by the American Councils for International Education, just under 20% of U.S. K-12 students were learning a language other than English. For the European Union, the median is 92% of students.
It is true that English is the preferred language of most of these European children. And it’s true, if we only count high school students in the USA, the percentage studying a language rises to 53%. But, to put things into context, that number is still significantly lower than the almost 60% of European students who study not one but two or more languages.
The language gap and the STEM gap are similar
The numbers are even more dismal for American higher education. The latest enrollment report from the Modern Language Association shows just 7.5 language course enrollments per 100 students. With the exception of 1980, this number is the lowest since the 1950s. Since 2009, the number of students in two- and four-year colleges taking language courses has decreased by 15.3%.
The gap in language education in the United States is at least as bad as the divide in science, technology, engineering, and math was when President Barack Obama spoke of “our generation’s Sputnik moment” in his speech on the State of the Union in 2011.
The comparison with the STEM crisis is fairer than it seems at first sight. Like the STEM crisis, the language deficit crisis involves historically poor outcomes in language education and reflects a marked division of educational opportunities along socio-economic, ethnic and regional lines. Yet unlike STEM, language education has yet to enjoy the same wave of public support and private donations, despite repeated calls for action.
Many argue that Americans shouldn’t worry about our language deficit. After all, English remains the language of the world’s financial, political and cultural elites. However, for the first time in decades, it is now possible to imagine a time when English will cease to be the global lingua franca. Brexit has already shaken the status of English as an official language of the European Union. Meanwhile, Mandarin Chinese is fast becoming the new English, thanks to China’s business partnerships around the world.
We should learn from the Cold War crisis
At the same time, we continue to forget hard-won lessons about the importance of languages to national security and international trade. We learned that once after World War II. At the time, the demand for Cold War Russian speakers propelled the creation and improvement of Russian curricula in higher education, resulting in language enrollments in the 1960s. Some of the most influential innovations in the teaching of languages, for example, were developed in the 1960s in the Russian programs at Stanford University and Dartmouth College, where I teach.
We forgot that lesson in the decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, as the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report clearly show. If recent years’ language enrollment data is any indication, we’re starting to forget once again.
There are also good national reasons to care about language teaching. The United States has never been a monolingual country, and it is less so than ever. There are, for example, about as many native speakers of Spanish in the United States as in Spain. Over 60 million Americans speak a language other than English at home. We have to interact with non-English speakers far more often than we need to write computer code. However, we do not hesitate to reorient the programs of our schools to ensure that students learn to program.
The language deficit reflects a socio-economic divide
Even more urgently, the linguistic deficit is a question of equality and disparity. Three of the four states with the fewest language enrollments — Arkansas, Montana and New Mexico — are in the bottom half of states ranked by gross domestic product. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minorities are much less likely to have access to language programs at school. In college, African-American and Hispanic students are much less likely than their white classmates to study abroad.
A system that excludes students from language study is a system designed to perpetuate inequality. Not all language students are fluent, but not all kids learning to code will invent the next Google.
Learning another language is not a pleasant but ultimately superfluous thing to do. This is one of the most life-changing paths for a student. I don’t say that as liberal piety. How many other subjects bring with them the chance to visit, live, study or work in another culture, while cultivating metacognitive, communication and problem-solving skills?
Simply put, language learning is about opportunities, like those in the many economic sectors where knowledge of a foreign language is an asset, such as the civil service, health, education, finance, business, agriculture or industry.
It’s easy to see what’s behind America’s language deficit. The hardest part is getting support to invest in structural solutions to structural problems.
When will be the Sputnik moment for language teaching? The elements that characterized the STEM crisis are all there – the national emergency, the stark inequality, the unflattering comparison with peer countries. The next step is for parents and school districts to recognize that languages, no less than STEM disciplines, are essential 21st century skills, and to push for national standards for language education.
Roberto Rey Agudo is Director of the Language Program in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and a Public Voices Project Op-Ed Fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertoReyAgudo