U.S. Incompetence in Foreign Language Study Threatens Nation's Future Role in World Economy

Article excerpt

``Can We Speak the Same Language?'' was the headline on a series of 10 full-page advertisements that recently appeared in The New York Times.

Catchy? Yes. Comforting? No.

Though the title sounds noble, it merely hammers home this critical factor, repeatedly overlooked in the U.S.: our woeful incompetence in foreign language study.

The ads were reprints from panel discussions among American and Japanese scholars conducted in Tokyo this past May. The stated purpose of the forum: ``...it is our hope that identifying and exploring inherent cultural differences will help in understanding and ultimately resolving economic differences.''

How does all of this affect you?

There has been a surge in the number of U.S. public schools offering or requiring that students study a second language, my research associate Beth Kobliner reports.

``The younger the person is when starting a language and the longer he or she studies it, the more skilled that individual will be,'' notes Leo Benardo, director of foreign languages for New York City's public schools. ``Several hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into research to prove that basic point.''

Although the final figures have not been tabulated, a new survey conducted by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and commissioned by the Department of Education points to the great strides being made.

About 30 percent of students enrolled in public schools grades 9-12 were studying a second language in 1985. This represents a 10 percent increase compared to the fall of 1982.

Spanish, French, German, Italian and Russian are still the most commonly studied languages and the number of students studying each has increased. Chinese language study has increased about 50 percent. But the big story is Japanese.

In the fall of 1982, only 6,000 American students were studying Japanese in grades 9-12. That figure has surged to 14,000 and the survey has compiled data from only 30 states. That represents a 130 percent jump!

``While that is a substantial increase, when you compare the number of students studying Japanese to the base of 2.8 million enrollments in those 30 states, it is only .5 percent of that total population,'' reports Patricia Dandonoli, a consultant to the teaching council. …