WASHINGTON – Funding cuts and changes in education policies have led to a sharp reduction in the number of Americans studying foreign languages at the same time the government and business are demanding more employees with language skills.
“Students are naturally inquisitive about languages,” said Diane DeNoon,Johnson County coordinating teacher in Overland Park,Kan.
But because of funding uncertainties,the kindergarten to grade12 program is threatened with cuts. “We don't know if it's going to survive or not this spring,” DeNoon said.
Two years ago,the nearby Shawnee Mission school district eliminated its foreign languages program in elementary schools because of funding problems,said Leigh Anne Neal,director of communications for the school district.
DeNoon and the Council for Basic Education cited President Bush's education reform,the No Child Left Behind Act,as part of the problem because of its focus on literacy,mathematics and science.
A council news release in March said a study showed how the law “is influencing instructional time and professional development in key subject areas [and] reveals that schools are spending more time on reading,math,and science,but squeezing out social studies,civics,geography,languages and art.”
Under the slogan “Celebrate,Educate and Communicate,” the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages last week announced a campaign for 2005 to build public awareness about the value of learning foreign languages. The campaign will include television commercials featuring children talking about languages.
The teachers group quoted the American Council on Education as saying overall foreign language enrollment in U.S. higher education fell from16 percent of students 1960 to 8 percent in 2002.
“Fewer than 1 percent of American graduate students are studying languages deemed by the federal government to be critical to national security,” said Keith Cothrun,a German teacher and ACTFL president,at a briefing at the National Press Club.
A 2002 survey by Health Companies International,a research firm,showed that Americans business executives had the lowest average number of languages spoken – 1.4. In the Netherlands,that number was 3.9,followed by Sweden at 3.4 and Brazil at 2.9. Just above the United States at the bottom of the list of 18 countries were three other English-speaking countries: the United Kingdom (1.5),New Zealand (1.6) and Canada (1.8).
The U.S. government needs 34,000 employees with foreign language skills in 80 agencies,according to ACTFL. A 2002 Government Accountability Office study found that the Army had serious shortfalls of translators and interpreters in five of six critical languages – Arabic,Korean,Mandarin Chinese,Persian-Farsi and Russian.
Web sites for the Transportation Security Administration,Homeland Security Department and a government-wide job site list vacancies in those categories that pay from $80,000 to $90,000 per year.
Other factors are also affecting school districts across the country.
Sandra Tonnsen,a language teacher in Colleton County,S.C.,said that there are no program cuts in her county,but there are no foreign language programs in either elementary or middle schools because there isn't enough money. The county of about 40,000 residents in the southern part of the state has an increase in demand for Spanish instruction and a decline in demand for French because of the rise in the county's Hispanic population.
The problem,Tonnsen said,is “the critical need for teachers” of foreign languages.
In Nashville,Tenn.,public schools recently cut two German language teacher jobs,said Beckie Gibson,a coordinator. But at the same time,the school system increased the number of Spanish teachers and classes because “it's the United States' second language,” Gibson said.
As for the No Child Left Behind Act,Gibson said that the system “had cut budget on staff development programs,” which were aimed at developing teachers' skills and knowledge.
Paula Patrick,a foreign language coordinator in Fairfax County,Va.,said that a second language is important for English speakers. Speakers of other languages will understand what the Americans are saying,but “you may not know what they are saying about you,” Patrick said.
At the same time,Patrick said of funding cuts: “It comes from a narrow vision.”
The school system,which serves more than 166,000 students at 235 schools,has increased language instruction. This year,44,909 students are studying a foreign language,up from 44,157 last year,an increase of less than 2 percent.
The system,which offers courses in nine languages,including Arabic and Japanese,will add some advanced instruction next year.
Washington and its Virginia suburbs are witnessing increases in foreign language teaching at both schools and colleges for a variety of reasons,including the region's many ethnic communities,high family incomes and the international aspect of being the nation's capital.
American University in Washington offers classes in 10 languages,with plans to add Farsi and Polish next year. Total enrollment in foreign languages increased from 1,726 in 2001 to 2,089 this year,said Nadia Harris,chair of the department of languages and foreign studies.