Are we becoming “English-only?” I don’t think so!

Aug 20, 2010 by

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Evan R. Goldstein notes that USA is becoming a de facto “English-only” country. This is both true and not true.

As is pointed out by Mr. Goldstein, less and less attention (money, teaching time, etc.) is given to the study of foreign languages. According to the figures cited by Goldstein, the percentage of elementary schools offering foreign-language instruction decreased to 25% in 2008 from 31% in 1997; in middle schools, the corresponding figures are 58% in 2008 and 75% in 1997. The number of high schools offering foreign language education remains about the same. The decline in foreign languages is no less pronounced at the college/university level. According to the Modern Language Association, in 2007 around 8% of students were enrolled in foreign-language courses, which is about half of what it was in the mid-1960s.

This decline is happening despite the government’s efforts to pour more money into foreign language study after September 11, 2001. However, the governmental focus on National Security may also be the reason why foreign language education is declining in this country. There is a disconnect between what colleges/universities teach and what the government wants. Most university-level foreign language programs focus on Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian and Chinese; in many smaller colleges “modern languages” equates “Spanish-only”. But the government wants Pashto, Farsi, Dari, Arabic, Korean.

But even where government’s needs and universities’ wants overlap, for example with Russian, there is little emphasis on the practicality of the language learning on the college level. After 3 years of studying Russian in college, few students speak passable Russian, let alone are fluent. Despite the ready availability of professional Russian instructors who are native speakers, most students still learn the language from graduate students who are neither native nor fluent in Russian. And most Russian departments prefer to hire non-natives over native Russian speakers. Outside the basic language classes, most of the education in most of the Russian programs focuses on classical literature, not modern culture, politics etc. As much as discussing moral issues in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is valuable in and of itself, it does little to promote the students’ grasp of and fluency in modern Russian. Reading the classics in translation — which is what most Russian literature courses do, to attract more students — helps even less.

Thus, it is not surprising that fewer and fewer Americans learn foreign languages and that fewer and fewer of those who do can truthfully say that they speak them.

However, the U.S. is far from becoming a de facto “English-only” country, as I’ve discussed in earlier postings on Heritage languages. As mentioned there, in 2005, 52 million Americans (or 19% of the country’s population) spoke a language other than English at home and these numbers are growing. More importantly, this growth in Heritage languages reflects not only the immigration boom of the early 2000’s, but also the desire of more and more parents to raise their children as bilinguals.

As is noted in a recent article in The New York Times,

“although a majority of parents seeking caretakers for their children still seek ones who will speak to their children in English, popular parenting blogs and Web sites indicate that a noticeable number of New York City parents are looking for baby sitters and nannies to help their children learn a second language, one they may not speak themselves.”

This is in stark contrast with the situation just a short time ago, when many parents insisted that their foreign-language-speaking nannies refrain from using their native tongue and speak only English with their children, for fear that another language might muddle their English-language development. Today, many New York parents and those around the country find reasons to hire baby sitters and nannies who speak a second language with their children. Some parents struggled to pick up foreign languages and want to make life easier for their children. This being the melting pot that the U.S. is, many parents have a connection to another language and want to reinforce it. And much in contrast with the views of the previous generation, many of today’s parents believe that growing up with a second language makes children smarter. And guess what, research shows that they are right. Growing up bilingual does make you smarter, and not only where language is concerned. This is the topic we’ll discuss in more detail in the next posting.

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