It is not an exaggeration to declare that the United States of America could be the only country in the world where one can graduate from high school and even college without taking one course of foreign language study. Of those few schools which still require their students to take a foreign language to graduate, the one or two years of foreign language study is woefully inadequate for developing a high degree of spoken fluency. As America crossed into the 21st century, a bilingual rate of less than 9% prevailed. That rate is still true in 2005.
As early as 1979, a Presidential Commission on Foreign Languages revealed that,
“American’s incompetence in foreign language is nothing short of scandalous…”
Some 26 years later, that “scandal” is still raging in America.
Second language acquisition in the public school system has always suffered from the prevailing political and educational ideology of the times. During the first 100 years of America’s history, America was a multilingual society—a fact almost too hard to believe in light of today’s bilingual deficit. Although xenophobic tendencies were always hiding in a bush somewhere ready to jump out, there were no legislative efforts to control the teaching and practice of foreign language education.
In the infancy of our country, immigrants, and their offspring managed to maintain their native tongue while learning English. Americans and those with English as their first language hired private tutors to learn a foreign language. Many Americans could make this effort today but do not. To develop proficiency in a foreign language was seen by our early fellow-Americans as a valuable skill and indicative of an educated person. Sadly, this is not so in modern times.
In the 1800’s, due to the large immigrant influx into the United States, private foreign language study began to be replaced by public schools in order to meet the needs of the immigrant groups.
By the beginning of the 1900´s, there was a major effort to establish foreign language instruction in all levels of public education and to establish standards governing these programs. This effort, an amazing and outstanding thing considering modern “English Only” movements in America, was to be sadly short-circuited.
By the beginning of the 20th century, a high level of xenophobia was reigning in America. World War I was primarily responsible for outlawing the speaking of any language other than English. Foreign language newspapers and foreign language programs in the public schools were abolished.
A new nationalism—a kind of populism—emerged for the sake of national unity. Foreign language instruction was irrationally seen as a threat to national unity–a condition not unlike what we are seeing in 2006 in the English Only movements.
Before 1923, twenty-two states in America had laws prohibiting the teaching of foreign languages. The Supreme Court overturned this silliness in 1923. However, by 1954, 56% of U.S. high schools did not even have foreign language courses available to their students. Of those that did, only 14.2% of the students were enrolled in foreign language study. This was due to America’s abnormal fear (xenophobia) of the strange or foreign as applied to foreign languages. By World War II, America was ill prepared linguistically to conduct the war. America’s military had to play catch-up with the rest of the world by developing effective language learning methods almost overnight.
By the early 1970’s, the slight improvement in public schools’ offerings of foreign language programs once again suffered a decline. This was probably due to reduced funding for the programs. Second-language illiterate parents and school administrations made ill-informed decisions to cut funding thinking that foreign language learning did not benefit the students.
Elementary school foreign language acquisition programs disappeared. Foreign language entrance requirements were abolished at some universities.
When the early 1980´s rolled around, a small resurgence in second language learning occurred but progress was limited. Though studies and reports abounded on why America needed to become competent in foreign languages, only a small number of states had programs in the elementary levels. Most of those were spearheaded locally.
Any modern improvements today are constantly in danger of elimination by nationalist neo-populist, English Only groups. They view Mexican immigrants as brutalizing your children’s public school’s English education with their native Spanish.
In a 2002 story by Patrik Jonsson, published in The Christian Science Monitor, he reported that the states of Georgia, New Jersey, and the school district in Denver, Colorado, either had waived or were in the process of eliminating the foreign language requirement for high school graduation.
I contacted all of these school districts. Only Denver responded. The representative said,
“I have checked with several counselors. At this time, we cannot think of any district in Colorado that requires Foreign Language (particularly in the Metro area). That’s not to say there isn’t a small district somewhere that requires it.”
PART TWO – Solving the Problem