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HomeLanguage NewsnewsFirst U.S. Study on Foreign Language Learning in 30 Years

First U.S. Study on Foreign Language Learning in 30 Years

The Commission will work with scholarly and professional organizations around the country to gather available research about the benefits of language instruction at every educational level, from pre-school through lifelong learning, and will help to initiate a nationwide conversation about languages and international education.

The Commission was formed in response to a bipartisan Congressional request from Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Representatives Leonard Lance (R-New Jersey), David Price (D-North Carolina), Don Young (R-Alaska), and former Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey).

In their request, the members of Congress asked the American Academy to undertake the new study to examine the following questions: “What actions should the nation take to ensure excellence in all languages as well as international education and research, including how we may more effectively use current resources to advance language attainment?” and “How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans?”

In calling for the Academy’s study, the members of Congress emphasized that American society is increasingly multilingual, Americans are more engaged around the globe than ever before, and most of the major challenges and opportunities—from public health issues to the development of new technologies—require international understanding and cooperation. Yet, by some estimates, as many as 80% of Americans can only speak one language, while, by contrast, 50% of Europeans over the age of 15 are able to converse in a second language.

“Language learning should be among our highest educational priorities in the 21st century,” American Academy President Jonathan Fanton said. “By reviewing existing practices and proposing new ideas, the Academy’s Commission will advance the conversation about language education, focusing on a body of knowledge and a set of skills that will become more critical as communication between and among cultures increases.”

Paul LeClerc, the Director of the Columbia University Global Center in Paris, has been selected to serve as chair of the Commission. An expert in the French Enlightenment, Dr. LeClerc is the past president and CEO of the New York Public Library, and he also served as President of Hunter College.

Commissioners appointed to date are: Martha Abbott, Executive Director, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages; Dan Davidson, President, American Councils for International Education; Nicholas Dirks, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley; Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General, and Director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative, Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University; Rosemary Feal, Executive Director, Modern Language Association; Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History, Columbia University; Philip Rubin, Senior Advisor to the President, Haskins Laboratories, and former Principal Assistant Director for Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Diane Wood, Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit; and Pauline Yu, President, American Council of Learned Societies. More members of the Commission will be added throughout August and September.

“We hope that the commission will be a galvanizing effort,” said LeClerc, “bringing together all of the people who have done important work over the last few decades to identify the personal, social, political, commercial and even the biological benefits of language learning. The evidence, when gathered together, is striking and undeniable. For ourselves and for the nation, we need to do a better job of learning how to communicate across language barriers.”

The Commission will study all the ways in which Americans receive language education, from classes in traditional academic settings to government programs to workplace enrichment, in order to identify best practices and opportunities for improvement. The last major, national report on language learning was Strength Through Wisdom: A Critique of U.S. Capability, published in 1979 by the President’s Commission on Foreign Languages and International Studies.

Initial support for the Commission is provided by a $220,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and by the Academy’s New Initiatives Fund.

Language Magazine is offering its full support to the Academy and will be offering its readers the opportunity to share their views/expertise with the panel.

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