Learning a Foreign Language Helps Kids Think and Make Money. Why Don’t American Parents Care?

Only 20 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. are enrolled in a foreign language class. Why aren't American parents outraged?

The advantages of teaching kids a second language are diverse and well-established by research. Cognitive functioning improves. Standardized test scores rise. Cultural knowledge increases. Career opportunities abound. Unfortunately, the vast majority of American kids are missing out on these benefits.

According to a recent Pew study, the median percentage of primary and secondary students in European countries enrolled in at least one foreign language class is 92. Seven European countries can boast that 100 percent of their schoolchildren are learning a foreign language. In the U.S. however, only 20 percent of K-12 students are enrolled in a foreign language class. The U.S. could triple enrollment tomorrow and it would still be the worst of any country in the survey.

Why does the U.S. lag so far behind its European peers? The answer is complicated, but Marty Abbott has an idea. Abbott is a former high school French and Latin teacher and the current executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a national association of almost 13,000 foreign language instructors. She says historical factors and ignorance of the benefits of foreign language education are to blame.

We spoke to Abbott about why the U.S. is so far behind in foreign language education and what can and is being done to ensure American children have access to the benefits of language learning.

The Pew study shows that European students are nearly five times more likely than American students to be enrolled in a foreign language class at school. Why is that?

We have never excelled in the number of students learning languages. In another era, we didn’t have to be proficient in languages. We weren’t in great proximity to other countries like they are in Europe, where you can go quickly from one language environment to another. We looked at language as an academic pursuit, not an effort to really learn to communicate.

How have things changed?

Right now we’re in a very, very different environment. With interdependence globally, in order for us to do business around the world, it’s important to speak the language of our customers and the people we’re trying to establish diplomatic relations with. And with our changing national demographics, even if they don’t leave the U.S., it’s really important for Americans to be proficient in other languages.

Employers are starting to articulate that they have a shortage of multilingual speakers and that it’s starting to hinder their ability to do business abroad and in this country (with employees that have a native language other than English).

Despite all of the benefits, we’re not seeing parents mobilize to demand foreign language education. Why?

We found when we did national opinion polling that general awareness about the important benefits of knowing another language was very low. Parents didn’t realize the economic gains it could mean for their children in the future, that if they know another language their employability is going up.

This doesn’t seem to be an issue in other countries.

In most other countries where English isn’t the primary language, most people grow up bilingual or trilingual. Sometimes they have a local dialect in addition to a couple of national languages or a nearby country that has a different language, so it’s quite normal and it’s quite easy to do. But because it’s never been the norm in our country. We consider it something that only able people can do. We don’t have a mindset that we’re good at languages.

How can we change that?

You often hear people say “I took four years of French and I don’t remember anything,” or “I’m not good at languages; I just can’t do it.” That’s why we’re trying to change the way that languages are taught, making teachers aware of the importance of developing students’ communicative skills so that when they leave four years of any language, they’re really able to communicate.

How is instruction changing to accomplish that goal?

We’ve turned to different kinds of language programs. In dual-language immersion programs, students learn half of the general education curriculum in English and half in another language. It’s a different way of looking at language learning, and parents are very much in favor. In our campaign, “Lead with Languages,” we’re counting on this grassroots effort by parents to really promote language learning at the elementary level.

When people begin to retain a language and the benefits are obvious, it would be easier to sell parents on the benefits of foreign language education.

Exactly. And I think that people are starting to see that. Spanish has been the dominant language of choice for students in this country for a long time because people want to see a practical use for the language that they’re learning. But I have to say that I don’t think that there’s any language that you can learn, and I’m including Latin and I’m including American Sign Language, that wouldn’t be useful even if you never leave the United States.

Besides convincing parents, what else needs to be done to expand language education in the U.S.?

We need to solve the language teacher shortage. Last year, 43 states plus the District of Columbia stated that they had a language teacher shortage. We have a national need to prepare more teachers for the classroom.

Are there any indications that things are changing for the better?

The Seal of Biliteracy, a seal on high school students’ transcripts, is spreading like wildfire in this country. [It was first given in 2011, and now] 33 states have some form of it. Students are informing college admissions offices and employers of proficiency in a second language. We’re seeing high school students stay in their programs longer because they want to get the seal. They want to earn that recognition.

That’s a great sign.

I think students see a different world around them. They’re growing up regularly using the internet and interacting with other people around the world. They know that learning other languages is going to be an important skill in their future.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.