Kathleen Stein-Smith proposes a campaign for world language education in the U.S. based on social and political engagement, using best practices and modern strategies
America needs a campaign for world languages based on social and political engagement, inspired by best practices in language education around the world and informed by current theory in change management, innovation, strategy, and social marketing.
An increase in language skills among Americans is important for a variety of reasons, ranging from self-improvement and education for global citizenship to our national and economic security.
In addition, the potential for employment for those with language skills includes, but is not limited to education and government service.
Employment opportunities in world languages far exceed the national average, yet many American students are unaware of this, with only 18.5% of K-12 students and 8% of college and university students enrolled in language courses.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Occupational Outlook Handbook lists employment for interpreters and translators as predicted to increase by 46%, much faster than average, between 2012 and 2022, with the number of jobs increasing from 63,600 in 2012 to 92,900 in 2022. Median pay for 2012 is listed as $45,430 per year, or $21.84 per hour.
According to Common Sense Advisory, the language-services industry is worth nearly $40 billion annually, and of the top ten language services companies, five are American.
A vigorous campaign is needed to make Americans — and American students — aware of these opportunities, and much more.
The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit
English speakers are among the least likely in the world to learn a foreign language, and among English speakers, Americans are the least likely.
According to a 2001 Gallup poll, one in four Americans felt comfortable holding a conversation in a language other than English. When recent immigrants and other heritage-language speakers are subtracted from that number, approximately 10% of Americans would be comfortable conversing in another language.
According to the Modern Language Association (MLA), enrollment in a course in a language other than English at the postsecondary level stands at 8%, as opposed to 16% in 1960. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), only 18.5% of K-12 students are enrolled in the study of a foreign language.
To varying degrees, English speakers around the world do not acquire foreign-language skills in the same numbers as speakers of other languages; in part, this may be due to a widely held belief that English is the global lingua franca. An easy answer would be that, as English is the “global language,” it is not necessary for Americans, Brits, and other native English speakers to learn another language, but on closer examination, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Not Everyone Speaks English
It is interesting to note that, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index 2013-2014, the most globally competitive nations, Switzerland and Singapore, are multilingual.
While there may be something to be said for the widespread use of English around the globe, monolingual English speakers often find themselves at a disadvantage in a multilingual world and in their own multicultural and multilingual communities.
In addition, in a globalized world, companies that would like — or need — to provide goods and services to other countries or to local multicultural communities also frequently find themselves at a disadvantage when competing with multinational companies or with companies whose employees possess stronger language skills.
The national interest can also suffer when — as is the case in the U.S. — government agencies cannot fill positions requiring world language skills due to the lack of qualified applicants.
But what of the life of the mind?
English speakers with knowledge of one or more additional languages can certainly enjoy literature, film, theater, and opera in the vernacular. While traveling, English speakers with knowledge of one or more additional languages can converse with locals beyond the English-speaking tourism workers. Even at home, knowledge of other languages makes that encounter with a new neighbor or coworker, or dinner at a local foreign restaurant that much more memorable.
Beyond these benefits of knowledge of other languages, research has demonstrated that consistent use of another language can make us more capable of multi-tasking and can even stave off dementia. Think of it as fitness training for the brain.
The challenge is twofold — to examine why we are so uninterested in other languages and, more importantly, what can we do about it. How can we as English speakers around the world effectively address the world-language deficit together?
Research has demonstrated that immersion is the best methodology but that intrinsic motivation based in affinity for the target culture is the best motivator, and that motivation is key to a successful foreign language learning outcome.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in the executive summary of its Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding, “In our globalized world, language competencies are increasingly important. It is no longer an advantage for a job seeker to speak just one non-native language (NNL). Rather, it now could be a drawback for a job seeker to only speak one language.”
This is really the heart of the matter — how to convince English speakers, especially Americans, that monolingualism in a globalized world is a drawback.
The Campaign for Foreign Languages
As individuals, we can make world language learning a part of our own lives and of the lives of those around us and encourage an interest in foreign languages among family, friends, and neighbors.
As concerned citizens, we can support language education in our schools and vote for like-minded candidates for public office. We can engage in advocacy by speaking up at public meetings and by writing to public officials. We can even consider running for office.
As foreign-language educators, we can learn from best practices and bring them to our teaching environments. We can be active participants in local, regional, and national professional associations.
According to Pufahl, in her 2001 article “What We Can Learn from Foreign Language Teaching in Other Countries,” we can learn much by observing and emulating best practices in other countries.
In their 2000 article “Promoting a Language Proficient Society: What You Can Do,” Marcos and Peyton provide clear insight as to how best to promote foreign-language learning.
In short, we can become change agents.
Theory, Strategy, and Tactics
Addressing a complex problem like the world language deficit and successful implementation of a paradigm shift require an interdisciplinary approach that would be grounded in and informed by the literature and theory in relevant areas like strategy, innovation, change management, and social marketing.
As the public and scholarly conversation on the lack of foreign language skills among Americans has endured for decades, beginning with the report of the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, Strength through Wisdom, in 1979, followed quickly by senator Paul Simon’s The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis in 1980, many efforts, initiatives, and programs have attempted to increase foreign-language skills among Americans. Although many have been relatively successful, the majority of English-speaking Americans still do not possess world language skills.
The proposed campaign will need to be strategic. The theory of blue ocean strategy, as articulated by Kim and Mauborgne, would be particularly appropriate, with its emphasis on the development of new market sectors or new language learners.
The proposed campaign will also need to be innovative. The theory of disruptive innovation, as articulated by Clayton M. Christensen, with its emphasis on creating and delivering a new product to the market, is especially relevant. It will be necessary for foreign language educators to be innovative in order to propel such a significant paradigm shift in world language learning behaviors among English speakers, and the theory of disruptive innovation, would be applicable to this initiative, by which a broad cross-section of the population would become interested in language learning, resulting in a significant increase in the number of foreign language educators needed, for example.
The proposed campaign will also need marketing. In this case, as the goal is something that is good for society, a social marketing campaign, as articulated by Philip Kotler and later by Lee and Kotler, would be the type of campaign to be initiated. The four “P’s” of marketing — price, product, promotion, and place — need to be adapted and used in the design of the proposed social marketing initiative. As developed by Kotler, the concept of social marketing includes the application of marketing theory to the greater social good. In this case, foreign-language advocacy would be inspired by marketing theory in order to increase the number of native English-language speakers with skills in one or more world languages, a good for both society and the individual.
However, as the heart of the matter is a paradigm shift that would lead Americans to embrace foreign language learning, change management is the key to a successful campaign. As articulated by John Kotter, change management includes eight steps, the first of which is “a sense of urgency.” This sense of urgency, clearly understood by foreign-language educators, the federal government, and multinational corporations, has not yet become part of the daily conversation among the general public. Incorporating Kotter’s eight-step change-management theory, an effective campaign for world languages would begin by establishing a sense of urgency.
Subsequent steps are creating a guiding coalition, developing a change vision, communicating the vision for buy-in, empowering broad-based action, generating short-term wins, never letting up, and incorporating changes into the culture.
Many Americans may be interested in other cultures and in traveling the world, but this author’s doctoral research demonstrated that foreign-language requirements in undergraduate major programs in global/international studies are generally limited to the intermediate level. Many Americans who travel abroad experience other cultures through the veil of English-speaking tour guides and all-inclusive resorts where English is generally spoken. Even American students who study abroad often do so in English.
It may be that the British, members of the European Union, which is known for foreign-language education, could be a role model for the U.S. Recent reports and initiatives include the Guardian’s “Case for Language Learning,” the British Academy’s five-year language program, launched in 2011, the Language Festival 2013, reports such as the British Academy’s 2013 Languages: The State of the Nation: Demand and Supply of Language Skills in the UK, Lost for Words: the need for languages in UK diplomacy and security, the annual Confederation of Business and Industry (CBI) survey on education and skills, Changing the Pace, and Languages for the Future: Which languages the UK needs most and why, as well as current changes to the foreign-language curriculum and requirements in schools in the UK.
Other examples include the ACTFL Year of Languages in 2005, the Council of Europe’s European Day of Languages, celebrated on Sept. 26 each year since 2001, the UN International Year of Languages in 2008, the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF) National French Week in November each year, the ACTFL Discover Languages Month each February, and many more. The JNCL-NCLIS (Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies) leads a collaborative, interdisciplinary lobbying initiative for world languages in the U.S.
Recent conferences include Languages for All in September 2013 at the University of Maryland and Internationalization of U.S. Education in the 21st Century: The Future of International and Foreign Language Studies at William & Mary College in April 2014.
An effective campaign for world languages needs to employ a holistic approach.
As intrinsic motivation and affinity for the target culture have been demonstrated to be the most effective predictors of foreign-language-learning success, it is essential to highlight the appeal of learning about and interacting with other cultures, especially through knowledge of a new language.
From an early age, Americans need to learn about other cultures and languages across the curriculum. In addition to teaching students about foreign languages and cultures, the social-marketing campaign for world languages will need to show well-known Americans and celebrities using other languages through a variety of traditional, online, and social media. Even though the majority of Americans may not possess foreign-language skills, the number of well-known Americans and celebrities from entertainment, sports, and the arts who do is impressive, including but not limited to people like John Kerry, Sandra Bullock, Johnny Depp, Bradley Cooper, and international basketball star Tony Parker.
However, although intrinsic motivation may be the most effective predictor of successful language learning outcome, it is important to highlight the benefits of language skills in the workplace.
Although careers exist in foreign-language education from preschool through postsecondary education, and opportunities for educators would increase if greater numbers of Americans enrolled in world language classes, significant opportunities also exist in the language services industry for those with the skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), “The median annual wage for interpreters and translators was $45,430 in May 2012” and “employment of interpreters and translators is projected to grow 46% from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.”
Although the foreign-language deficit has been perceived as a threat to our economic and national security, funding for world language programs is insufficient and inconsistent, subject to budget cuts.
A strategic social-marketing campaign, informed by the relevant literature in innovation, change management, and social marketing, is needed, along with sufficient and consistent funding for world language programs.
Most importantly, American students need to be made aware of the career opportunities that exist for those with language skills, in education, government service, and beyond.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook. “Interpreters and Translators.” http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/interpreters-and-translators.htm
“The Case for language learning.” http://www.theguardian.com/education/series/the-case-for-language-learning
Marcos, Kathleen M., and Joy Kreeft Peyton. Promoting a Language Proficient Society: What You Can Do http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/0001promoting.html
Pufahl, Ingrid, et al. What We Can Learn From Foreign Language Teaching In Other Countries. http://www.cal.org/
“About One in Four Americans Can Hold a Conversation in a Second Language.” http://www.gallup.com/poll/1825/about-one-four-americans-can-hold-conversation-second-language.aspx
“ACTFL launches 2005: the Year of languages at annual conference.”
“The British Academy’s Language Programme.”
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook. “Interpreters and Translators.” http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/interpreters-and-translators.htm.
“The Case for Language Learning.” The Guardian
“Changing the Pace: Education and Skills Survey 2013.” http://www.cbi.org.uk/media/2119176/education_and_skills_survey_2013.pdf.
“Clayton Christensen: Disruptive Innovation.”
Common Sense Advisory. “The Top 100 Language Service Providers: 2013.” http://www.commonsenseadvisory.com/AbstractView.aspx?ArticleID=5505.
Common Sense Advisory. “The Language Services Market Slows Down in 2013, but Grows Nevertheless.” http://www.commonsenseadvisory.com/Default.aspx?Aid=5516&Contenttype=ArticleDetAD&moduleId=390&tabID=63
“Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009.” http://www.mla.org/2009_enrollmentsurvey
European Day of Languages
February Is Discover Languages Month
“Foreign Language Enrollments in K-12 Public Schools: Are Students Ready for a Global Society?” http://www.actfl.org/enrollment-survey
International Year of Languages. http://www.un.org/en/events/iyl/
“Internationalization of U.S. Education in the 21st Century.” http://www.wm.edu/offices/revescenter/internationalization/description%20/index.php
Kim., W. Chan, and Renee Mauborgne. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant. HBR Press. 2005.
Language Festival The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/language-festival
“Languages: The State of the Nation: Demand and Supply of Language Skills in the UK.” http://www.ucml.ac.uk/sites/default/files/pages/160/State_of_the_Nation_REPORT_WEB.pdf.
“Languages for All?: The Anglophone Challenge.” http://www.casl.umd.edu/lfa
“Languages for the Future: Which languages the UK needs most and why.” http://www.britishcouncil.org/organisation/publications/languages-future
“Lost for Words: the need for languages in UK diplomacy and security” http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/Lost_For_Words.cfm
National French Week http://www.frenchteachers.org/nfw/
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding.” http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/languagesinaglobalworldlearningforbetterculturalunderstanding.htm
Kotter International. “The 8 Step Process for Leading Change.” http://www.kotterinternational.com/our-principles/changesteps
Lee, Nancy R., and Philip A. Kotler. Social Marketing: Influencing Behaviors for Good. Sage, 4th ed., 2011.
Marcos, Kathleen M., and Joy Kreeft Peyton. Promoting a Language Proficient Society: What You Can Do. http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/0001promoting.html.
Pufahl, Ingrid, et al. What We Can Learn From Foreign Language Teaching In Other Countries. http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/0106pufahl.html.
Simon, Paul. The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis. Continuum, 1980.
Strength Through Wisdom, a critique of U.S. capability: A report to the President from the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000704560.
World Economic Forum. Global Competitiveness Index 2013-2014 rankings. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GCR2013-14/GCR_Rankings_2013-14.pdf.
Kathleen Stein-Smith, PhD, is the associate university librarian and director of public services, Giovatto Library, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, NJ. She is the author of two books, The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit and Our Economic and National Security, and The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit and How It Can Be Effectively Addressed in a Globalized World (Mellen Press, 2013), five current articles, and the blog Language Matters. She also delivered a TEDx talk on the U.S. foreign-language deficit in September 2013.