Should More Money Be Spent On Language Education?

More money should be spent on language instruction says this article from The Atlantic. Yet many of the arguments strike me, a language learning enthusiast, as out of date.

Educators from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., this past Thursday to lobby in the interest of world languages. It was Language Advocacy Day, an annual event on Capitol Hill that is aimed at garnering more federal support for language education.” and it the argument continues; Each year as national budget priorities are determined, language education is losing out—cuts have been made to funding for such instruction, including Title VI grants and the Foreign Language Assistance Program. And the number of language enrollments in higher education in the U.S. declined by more than 111,000 spots between 2009 and 2013—the first drop since 1995. Translation? Only 7 percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.

Empty Seats - Classroom - Language
Image by SrgPicker

Will Extra Funding Have An Impact?

Yes, fewer and fewer students are enrolling in language courses. Why is that? Maybe students just aren’t interested. Would increased funding change that? I wonder. Maybe it has to do with the methods of language instruction, and the poor results. Maybe teachers should be looking at their own methods rather than asking for more money for programs that are not in demand.

Another challenge emerges when looking at the languages these students are learning, too. In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course; just 64, on the other hand, were studying Bengali. Yet, globally,193 million people speak Bengali, while 75 million speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, noted back in 2010 that the vast majority—95 percent—of all language enrollments were in a European language. This is just one indicator demonstrating the shortcomings and inequalities in language education today.

Interest And Enthusiasm

Language learning is not about equal rights for all languages. It takes a great deal of interest and enthusiasm to learn a language. Forcing people to learn languages that they are unlikely to be able to use is not a great idea. What should matter is which languages people want to learn, regardless of the reason. We should let learners choose which languages to learn, and help them.

Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom. That’s noteworthy considering that in 2008 almost all high schools in the country—93 percent—offered foreign languages, according to a national survey.

Enthusiasm - Language
Image by UCFFool

Now we are getting to the heart of the matter. Present language instruction is largely a failure, according to this statistic. (Although I know of  brilliant teachers who are spectacularly successful). But overall it is not successful, so it is time to look at the model and see where it can be improved, rather than asking for more money to waste on something that doesn’t work very well.

More Language Teachers?

And then there’s the problem of teacher shortages. Even if schools embrace the various benefits of foreign-language instruction, finding qualified, experienced, and engaging, bilingual teachers in a crunch is tough. The language-policy analyst Rachel Hanson describes this as a big chicken-or-the-egg challenge in language education: “You can’t expand language education if you don’t have the pool of teachers to teach it,” she said. “And, if the students aren’t learning the language and becoming proficient, they won’t become teachers.

Maybe, in the world of the Internet, mobile computing, greatly expanded connections between people all over the globe, we don’t need so many qualified teachers with credentials. We need enthusiastic teachers willing to embrace newer ways to teach. Maybe those teachers can not only offer guidance and stimulus in the languages that they speak (ideal situation) but also help students who want to learn other languages, using Internet resources. If the learner is motivated enough, and if the teacher can provide the stimulus and support, a great many languages can be learned just using resources available on the Internet.


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3 comments on “Should More Money Be Spent On Language Education?


As opposed to 30 years ago when a great majority of language teachers in the United States were not very competent speakers, today, most young teachers have great skills in the language that they teach and they also have an intimate knowledge of the culture. However, the failed paradigm of front loading the instruction with grammar explanations, fill-in the blanks exercises, and so forth continues. It continues because most of these enthusiastic teachers graduate from their respective colleges with a literature background, hence, they have zero knowledge of how people actually acquire languages.

The majority of foreign language students who reach fluency do so by either having lived abroad, or are heritage speakers. The number of people who successfully reach a conversational ability who are “homegrowns”, people who learned solely in the classroom who reach an ability to at least read a newspapers, who can successfully speak on the telephone and book a room, who can read a memo or write a memo is close to zero.

So yes, of course, less people are going to sign up for a language course in college in the United States because of the dismal failure of the pedagogy. The good news though is that if you are interested in learning a second language successfully, you can do it by yourself on the internet, on LingQ for example. It is both a lot less expensive and more productive. I am a classroom teacher so I have first-hand experience on how the classroom in many cases can hold you back. When you engage in learning the language independently you don’t have to be “dependent” on someone and you can find content that is interesting for you. This is a sad thing to say since I teach in classrooms myself: Ia am currently learning French by myself. The last place I want to be is in a French classroom with some teacher who is going to correct everything I say and strip away my self-confidence at this vulnerable point in my language learning experience.

Steve could not be more correct in his assessment. It is the failed pedagogy of our high schools and our universities that has caused the drop in enrollments. Throwing money at the problem will never solve it.

Thanks for commenting Donald. Your Spanish students are the exceptions that prove the rule. When I have interacted with them via skype, they not only speak well, but they do so with confidence and enthusiasm. Congratulations!


I always laugh when I read this kind of lamentations. They never go to the crux of the matter—why do you need a foreign language at all if you leave in a successful and self-sufficient country like USA, France, Russia, Brazil, etc.? All possible kinds of cultural and material needs of an American are taken care of in English. Foreign languages are just another useless skill which is actively purged from memory like possible reactions of ferrum oxide or calculating integrals.
The best solution is to move the foreign languages into extracurricular activity entirely, like it is done with sports, music, and other vocational subjects. It will drastically reduce the amount of students and will cause the quality of teaching to skyrocket.

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