The U.S. Needs a National Language Policy

Foreign language programs are in danger in the United States, but a federal mandate would protect them, argues Kathleen Stein-Smith, an advocate for the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF).
© Alejandro Barba

Foreign language programs are in danger in the United States. The number of language classes at the elementary and middle school levels have been decreasing. Recent restrictions on work visas have made difficult for immersion programs to recruit qualified native teachers. And according to the Modern Language Association, 651 college and university foreign language programs were eliminated between 2013 and 2016. French language programs were the most severely impacted, with a loss of 129 programs.

The world is more interconnected than ever before. Yet, compared to other countries, U.S. students are less likely to study another language and U.S. adults are less likely to be able to hold a conversation in a second language. In a world where half the population is multilingual and 75% do not speak English, fewer than 20% of K-12 students in the United States study a foreign language, and only 7.5% of postsecondary students are studying a language other than English.

The United States is experiencing what is known as a “foreign language deficit.” This deficit can be observed at every level. Due to a relative lack of language skills, U.S. students are less able to engage in study abroad experiences, to appreciate literature, film, and media without translation, and are often unable to converse not only with neighbors, but even with members of their own families. Studies have demonstrated that the demand for foreign language skills among U.S. employers exceeds the supply, with French among the languages most in demand.

The underlying issue is the lack of a national language policy in the United States. Paradoxically, just as the world has become more globalized, the opportunity to learn another language is decreasing. If we are to effectively address our foreign language deficit, a national language policy is needed.

Governments and organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Olympic Committee, as well as international corporations, often have a language policy, which provides a framework for the learning and use of one or more languages. The U.S. has neither an official language nor a language policy, which has resulted in inconsistent support and funding for language learning both by English-speakers wishing to learn another language and those in the U.S. trying to learn English. This has left language programs more vulnerable to budgetary reductions and program eliminations than they would be with a federal mandate in place.

A national language policy would also encourage a public conversation about the benefits of multilingualism, as well as the role of many languages in the development of our identity. It would drive language learning so that the needs of U.S. employers for employees with language skills and cultural knowledge would be met. It would encourage more young people to consider language teaching as a career, thus mitigating the nationwide shortage of language teachers — 44 states and Washington D.C. report that they cannot find enough qualified educators to meet current needs — and would enable us to more effectively navigate our multilingual society and globalized world.

Canada, Louisiana, and Utah are just a few examples of successful and effective language policies. Following years of tension between English-speakers and French-speakers in Canada, the Official Languages Act of 1969 gave both languages equal status and framed the country’s official policy of bilingualism. The creation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) in 1968 ushered in a state-funded “French renaissance” in a region where the French language had almost disappeared.

In perhaps the most recent example to date, starting in 2007, the Utah State Senate voted a series of laws allocating funds for the creation of an immersion program in three foreign languages seen as “critical” for the economic development of the United States: Spanish, Mandarin, and French. The state now has 245 immersion programs in 7 languages, including 32 in French. As Gregg Roberts, the former World Language Specialist at the Utah State Board of Education, put it, “Utah students are no longer competing for jobs just against students from Texas and California, but against students from Europe, Asia, and Africa.”

The common thread in these successes is the need for community and political action. The best arguments will fail if they are not heard and acted upon. It is up to all of us — educators, parents, foreign language stakeholders and supporters, and the 70 million Americans who speak a language other than English at home — to bring the facts to the leaders of our communities, schools, colleges, and universities, to make the case for foreign languages, and to share our vision of a multilingual United States, reflective of our past, present, and future.

A federal language policy is essential and urgently needed. “Americans cannot remain monolingual,” said Gregg Roberts. “It’s an economic, cultural, and social handicap. Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century.”