Fostering Foreign Language Proficiency: What the U.S. Can Learn from Other Countries

Article excerpt

The U.S. has long been indifferent to the study of foreign languages. But other countries have made language instruction a central part of education. The authors point to successful features of programs in other parts of the world that the U.S. can adopt as it begins to recognize the value of learning other languages.

SEVERAL YEARS ago, an American schoolteacher named Elizabeth Clayton visited a first-grade classroom in France. (1) There she watched 6-year-olds move from French to English to Spanish "as naturally as breathing." Inspired by what she had seen, Clayton launched a French-language program for children in a Montessori preschool in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Today, the school's students learn French through songs, nursery rhymes, and creative play.

The U.S. doesn't often look beyond its own borders for new ideas in education, perhaps because many Americans view their country as a global leader, always on the forefront of social innovation. But in foreign language education, other countries lead, and the U.S. lags behind. In recent years, while most U.S. schools have continued to view foreign language proficiency as nice but unnecessary--somewhat akin to playing a musical instrument--other countries have established policies and practices that make foreign languages an essential part of the school curriculum. And these policies have paid off. Today in Europe more than 50% of adults speak a second language fluently. By contrast, only about 9% of adults in the U.S. are highly proficient in a second language. (2)

Attitudes about language study in U.S. schools have reflected the attitudes of society at large. In an increasingly English-speaking world, foreign languages have not seemed to matter to many Americans. Obstacles to the development of a strong language curriculum in American schools seem daunting. Currently, there is a major teacher shortage, and many school districts recruit teachers from abroad because of the limited supply of language-qualified U.S. teachers. There is also strong federal pressure for schools to focus on other priorities because of the No Child Left Behind Act. Finally, administrators feel that the limited time in the school day precludes offering a well-articulated language program.

But in the past few years, globalization and world events have underscored the national need for foreign language skills, and leaders in education, government, business, and the military have called for fundamental reforms in our approach to teaching foreign languages. (3) To connect with peoples around the world--for trade, diplomacy, security, and scientific advancement--the United States needs individuals with skills in the world's diverse languages. Moreover, public support for foreign language instruction also seems to be growing. A November 2004 Roper poll indicated that nearly half of Americans believe there is "too little" foreign language instruction in the public schools, while fully half believe that insufficient funding is provided for foreign language instruction. (4)

Now seems to be a good time to ask, How can the U.S. achieve the level of foreign language proficiency that other countries have attained? What is the rest of the world doing that we aren't?

HOW OTHER COUNTRIES FOSTER FOREIGN LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY

In 2000, to gain a better idea of what other countries were doing in foreign language education, the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) collected information about policies and practices in 19 countries in diverse regions of the world. (5) This exploratory study found that successful language programs shared several common features, which we describe below.

An early start. In most of the countries surveyed, the majority of students are required to begin learning additional languages in the elementary grades, whereas U.S. schools typically do not even offer foreign language classes until secondary school. In Thailand, for example, English is a compulsory subject beginning in first grade, and a new policy in Morocco has students beginning French in third grade and English in fifth. …