Are Americans finally coming around to the idea of learning languages?
The Language Shift
Language shifts have happened in societies since the beginning of recorded history. Today, Marty Abbott, head of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), explains a language shift currently taking place in the United States. I am pleased to be part of this movement. I hope you, too, will join.
by Marty Abbott
What is it about the United States that we remain the only developed country that routinely graduates students from high school with the knowledge of only one language? We can start with our history of language education. Traditionally, we have “studied” languages—and that implies that we are learning much about those languages but not focusing on how to use them to communicate. Most students have viewed language learning as a requirement, sometimes for graduation from high school, sometimes for admission to college or as a college requirement for a certain major. This leads to an attitude that several years of language study is something that you tick off your list of accomplishments. In addition, with the focus on study and not on communication, we have generations of Americans who feel that their investment in language study did not pay off in significant dividends.
However, with our changing demographics, our emphasis on global competitiveness, and our increased use of the Internet and social media to stay connected—we are beginning to see a shift in attitude mainly among our young people. This shift involves viewing language learning and cultural understanding as a critical necessity for success in today’s global environment. As young learners interact on a daily basis via the internet, they are increasingly engaging with those who do not necessarily speak English. While historically American citizens had little need to know other languages, the interconnectivity of today’s society guarantees that most U.S. citizens will encounter someone whose native language is not English—for most on a daily basis. And it is this interconnectivity that is forcing the shift in interest in language learning across the United States.
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