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America’s Lacking Language Skills

May 12, 2015

From the Atlantic

America’s Lacking Language Skills
Budget cuts, low enrollments, and teacher shortages mean the country is falling behind the rest of the world.

AMELIA FRIEDMAN MAY 10, 2015
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.

As I sat in sessions and congressional conference rooms, I heard a persuasive urgency in these educators’ voices. 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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. I Drank the Kool-Aid permalink
    June 3, 2015 2:23 am

    Look, the problem is very simple. American employers do not value language skills. They are not considered transferable even in academia much less industry. They are not anything but a *potential plus* in combination with other education or vocational skills, with great emphasis on the “potential,” and may actually damage one’s prospects in finding employment.

    We do not even value language skills in hiring for our State Department, which ought to be a focus career for people with language training. Unfortunately, even people with *doctoral-level training* in languages and area studies who go to work for State will frequently spend their careers working on nations and cultures other than the ones that they received their training in. However, political party connections count for a great deal there. Want to work for State? Just have Mom and Dad kick in beaucoup bucks to a Democrat’s pres. campaign, and work as a high-ranking campaign volunteer/organizer/scheduler, or press secretary, and in just a few years you can have one of the most visible jobs at the State Department. Or the CIA, for that matter. I defer the issue as to whether this is a sound practice – but the fact is that *no matter how disastrous the results have been* the practice will not change.

    The Clintons had Sidney Blumenthal on their payroll as a Middle East advisor, earning $10,000/month, apparently dictating to the State Department and filing “intelligence” reports. Not bad for a political reporter who couldn’t even get his names right (I can hear it now, “They’re all named Al- Something-or-Other…”). What would Blumenthal have been worth if he actually spoke or read Arabic? Conversely, how many graduate-degreed specialists in Middle East languages ever make $10,000/month?

    The US prides itself on being a nation of immigrants. This means that there is perceived to be an ample supply of needed native cultural expertise. If your surname is not Li, or Zhang, you are not going to be taken seriously even if you can explicate the Four Books in modern Chinese and translate technical papers without a dictionary. Even if you have a vocational specialty and the language expertise to discuss it, you will probably not find it a useful adjunct to your career.

    With these attitudes firmly entrenched, it is no wonder that students are turning to subjects that have a better prospect of returns, although in many cases their faith may be misplaced – see for example the rates at which STEM graduates actually find employment in the sciences. A disturbingly broad array of subjects increasingly do not offer adequate opportunities or consistency in employment. Part of this owes to a general devaluation of learning and education in the US (and more broadly in Europe), but part of it owes specifically to the rapid expansion of the US population via immigration. The US is the 3rd most populous nation on Earth, and it may be only natural that our economy and social structure begins to resemble those of China and India, with high structural levels of unemployment, a heavily bureaucratic and largely single-party government, problems tied to multi-culturalism, and decreased levels of social mobility.

    I certainly don’t agree with the attitudes, but I would be remiss in not pointing out that these are very real problems that are not going away anytime soon.

  2. I Drank the Kool-Aid permalink
    July 26, 2015 1:49 am

    Another revealing case – Caroline Kennedy, US ambassador to Japan – totally unhindered by any knowledge of Japanese.
    Still another – John Kerry, recent negotiator with Iran – is not handicapped by any understanding of Persian. Nor Arabic (not widely spoken as a native language in Iran, but a critical language for dealing with a Muslim theocracy).

    What a wonderful and enlightened foreign policy we have as a consequence of this policy of deliberate ignorance.

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