Skip to main content

Languages take off like Sputnik

Russian is booming, Arabic is catching on. Jon Marcus reports on some linguistic progress. They don't know it yet, but 12-year-olds in Marlborough, Massachusetts, will be forced to take a foreign language class next autumn for the first time in their school careers.

David Flynn, the schools' superintendent, is hurriedly adding the requirement to meet a new state law directing that the students be proficient in a language just two years from now. He has not had a chance to break it to the students yet.

Massachusetts is the latest state to order that its students learn a foreign language; a new law, enacted on January 3, won't let them graduate until they do.

Many American schools still do not teach a foreign language and more than 60 per cent of high-school students do not study one.

In Massachusetts, 83 per cent of elementary schools, 40 per cent of middle schools and 10 per cent of high schools have no language classes.

Enthusiasts say knowledge of a foreign language is becoming indispensable in the international economy, for admission to a growing number of colleges and universities, and to communicate with the 14 per cent of Americans who speak a language other than English. These factors have helped push language class enrolments to their highest level ever.

So dramatic is the trend that 35 of the 50 states report shortages of language teachers. Russian enrolments have soared by 235 per cent since 1985. Japanese is hot on the Pacific Coast, Spanish is immensely popular and even Arabic is on the increase.

Douglas Petersen, the legislator who was behind the law in Massachusetts, compares the upswing to the push for maths and science in response to Sputnik in the 1950s. He says the rush to language education is equally critical, and long overdue.

"It's sort of America-centrism that has made this seem like such a breakthrough, where in reality we're just catching up to everybody else, " Mr Petersen says.

Forty of the 50 states now require schools to offer two or more years of a foreign language - though not necessarily that students take it. Twenty-seven states consider foreign language to be part of their core curriculum, along with science, maths and English; nine of these require a foreign language to be offered at the elementary level. Six states - California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Texas and, now, Massachusetts - demand some demonstration of foreign language skills for graduation. Several others are considering it.

For all these gains, the language education movement is beset by political changes, shortages of money, competition for class time during the school day and other issues.

"Since we've had new leadership in Congress, 12 new governors and the political complexion changing in state legislatures and school boards, the process of reform is being halted in its tracks," says Julie Inman, a policy analyst for the Joint National Committee for Languages, who published a study of language education in December.

And it may be some time before all this language education translates into mass multi-lingualism.

A Pennsylvania law that takes effect this year says students "shall demonstrate the ability to converse in at least one language in addition to English" by the time they finish high school. Yet the law only applies to students who enter the first grade in the autumn - and who graduate from high school more than 13 years from now.

Even states that do require foreign languages, or colleges that make it a pre-requisite, are often not satisfied with two years of teaching.

"Most students, after two years of high-school foreign language, are not necessarily what you'd call proficient," said Kathy Christie, spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States, a non-partisan policy association.

For all the talk of global economics, students have a more immediate incentive to learn a language: one-quarter of colleges and universities require it, double the percentage of just 10 years ago.

Still, Tee Kamoshita, who teaches Japanese in Portland, Oregon, likes to remind her classes of the economic need for a language in a state where 132 Japanese companies do business. Kamoshita showed her students a catalogue she picked up at a local upmarket shopping mall describing leather goods sold there. It was in Japanese.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you