Published 3:37 PM EDT Oct 4, 2018
There is one deficit you will not see President Donald Trump tweeting about anytime soon: the language deficit.
How many of our children will be studying a language this year? It’s no secret that language education in the United States lags behind peer countries for both K-12 and higher education, but the actual numbers are astounding. According to a 2017 report by the American Councils for International Education, slightly less than 20 percent of U.S. students in grades K-12 were learning a language other than English. For the European Union, the median is 92 percent of students.
True, English is overwhelmingly the language of choice for most of those European kids. And true, if we count only high school students in the USA, the percentage studying a language rises to 53 percent. But, to put things in context, that number is still significantly lower than the nearly 60 percent of European students studying not one but two or more languages.
Language gap and the STEM gap are similar
The numbers are even more dismal for American higher education. The most recent enrollment report by the Modern Language Association shows only 7.5 enrollments in language courses per 100 students. With the exception of 1980, that 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 percent.
The language education gap in America is at least as serious as the gap in science, technology, engineering and math was when President Barack Obama talked about “our generation’s Sputnik moment” in his 2011 State of the Union address.
Comparison with the STEM crisis is more apt than might first appear. Like the STEM crisis, the language deficit crisis involves historically poor outcomes in language education, and reflects a stark divide in educational opportunities along socioeconomic, ethnic and regional lines. Yet unlike STEM, language education has not yet benefited from the same outpouring of public support and private donations, despite repeated calls for action.
Many argue that Americans should not 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 moment when English will stop being the global lingua franca. Brexit has already shaken the status of English as an official language of the European Union. Meanwhile, Mandarin Chinese is quickly becoming the new English, thanks to China’s trade partnerships all over 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 for national security and international trade. We learned this once after World War II. Back then, Cold War demand for Russian speakers propelled the creation and improvement of Russian programs in higher education, driving language enrollments through the 1960s. Some of the most influential innovations in language teaching, for example, were developed in the 1960s in the Russian programs at Stanford University and Dartmouth College, where I teach.
We forgot this lesson during the decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, as the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission Report make clear. If language enrollment data from recent years are an indication, we are starting to forget once more.
There are also good domestic reasons to care about language education. The United States has never been a monolingual country, and it is less so now than ever before. There are, for instance, roughly as many native speakers of Spanish in the USA as in Spain. More than 60 million Americans speak a language other than English at home. We need to interact with non-English speakers far more often than we need to write computer code. Yet we think nothing of redirecting our schools' curricula to ensure that students learn to program.
Language deficit reflects a socioeconomic divide
More urgently, the language deficit is an issue about equality and disparity. Three of the four states with fewest language enrollments — Arkansas, Montana and New Mexico — are in the bottom half of states as ranked by gross domestic product. Students from underprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic minorities are far less likely to have access to language programs at school. In college, African-American and Hispanic students are much less likely as their white classmates to study abroad.
A system that cuts students off from language study is a system designed to perpetuate inequality. Not all language students go on to become fluent, but not all kids who learn to code will go on to invent the next Google.
Learning another language is not a nice but ultimately superfluous thing to do. It is one of the most potentially life-changing paths a student can follow. I do not mean this as a liberal piety. How many other subjects bring with them the chance to visit, live, study or work in another culture, while also cultivating metacognitive, communication and problem-solving skills?
Simply put, language learning is a matter of opportunities, like those in the many economic sectors where knowledge of a foreign language is an asset, such as public service, health, education, finance, business, agriculture or manufacturing.
It is easy to understand what is behind America’s language deficit. The hard part is building support for investing in structural solutions to structural problems.
What will be the Sputnik moment for language education? The elements that characterized the STEM crisis are all there — the national urgency, the glaring 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 Language Program Director in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertoReyAgudo