The State of Foreign Language Learning

In 2013 the American Academy of Arts & Sciences issued a report concerned with the US educational system, which was “narrowing” its broad liberal arts focus and whose foreign language efforts were in a precipitous decline.  

300-400 million Chinese students were studying English, while of the 50 million US K-12 students, about 200,000 were studying Mandarin. In Europe about 2/3rds of the adults know more than one language, whereas in the US about 1/5th do, and most were heritage language speakers.

This year in February, a new report, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century, was issued by Paul LeClerc, the chair of the academy’s commission on language learning. The ‘investment’ it advocates, however, is not government funding, but building creative partnerships to increase teaching capacity.

One such example of this type of ‘investment’ is the alliance between the Chicago Public School system and the Chicago Center for Arabic Languages, which is supported by local Arabic speakers and the Qatar Foundation International.

While such partnerships might inject some life into K-16 foreign language acquisition, it might not be a bad idea to ask what is it we’re attempting to achieve by teaching or learning a language. Primarily, one acquires another language to communicate with others in their native tongue. Is this sufficient motivation to spend, according to the US Foreign Service Institute, which trains our ambassadors, diplomats and spies, 600 class hours to learn French, or 2200 hours for Mandarin?

Apparently not: among public elementary and middle school students, language education options have decreased over the last decade. Moreover, according to the Modern Language Association (MLA), the percentage of colleges requiring students to take foreign languages dropped 17’% between 1995 and 2010, to half of all colleges in the country.

Ironically, while the percentage of students studying foreign languages in college drops, the percentage of colleges requiring students to have taken foreign languages in high school rose from 21% in 1995 to 25% in 2010.  This number has long included the UC System. Princeton University has recently proposed a requirement that all its undergraduates study a foreign language regardless of proficiency upon matriculation or scores on language AP exams.

What it appears we’re facing, as a nation, is a negative feedback loop in the world of foreign language learning. Each year there is a decline in the number of students studying a language at the higher levels in postsecondary, which means there are then fewer and fewer teachers of foreign language at the K-12 level.

Obviously motivation is one of the biggest factors determining foreign language success.  Chinese students know that to enter international business, English is essential. They’re clearly motivated.

If you’re willing to devote the time there are numerous ways to gain language fluency outside of the classroom.  Gabriel Wyner’s book, Fluent Forever, discusses methods of learning proper pronunciation, because if you’re not saying or hearing a word correctly, vocabulary acquisition will be limited.  Pronunciation is stressed by the Mormon Missionary program, which seeks to convert people in their native tongue, and opera performers, who include Wyner among their numbers.

Once the foundations of the language are set, then it becomes a question of building the vocabulary. Wyner favors Anki, which is an online flashcard system that allows for customizing grammar and vocabulary by the user.

If Anki is too much work, then there are programs, free, for laptops and phones that might prove effective. can help you memorize key vocabulary. Duolingo is another popular language phone application.

The state of language learning in the US is dismal. It’s disappointing how little colleges or the government seems to care. For without foreign language acquisition the US will be sacrificing ‘economic growth and competitiveness, national defense and even increased academic achievement.’ Yet, as Gabriel Wyner states in the first chapter of  Fluent Forever, “…no one can give you a language; you have to take it for yourself.” There are lots of tools and ways to do so, but the motivation has to come from within.