Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

America's Languages: The Future of Language Advocacy

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

America's Languages: The Future of Language Advocacy

Article excerpt


In America, languages matter. In the America of the 21st century, this means that every child must have the opportunity to master English in order to fully participate in the economic and civic life of our nation; that every child who speaks or hears another language at home must have the opportunity to learn that language as well; that all children, regardless of their background, must have opportunities to learn other languages beyond English and beyond the language of the hearth and home. We believe that the time has come for a new, sustained, and long-term national advocacy effort, built on the growing grassroots support and private and public-sector demand for languages, and leveraging a growing body of research on the demonstrated cognitive, educational, and employment benefits of multilingualism as well as the extraordinary advances made in the past 40 years in the teaching of languages. We write here to advance this effort, first by discussing the context for language advocacy in the United States and then presenting the basic premise of Languages for All, the vision for language education in America. Subsequently, we turn to the key factors arguing for the feasibility of this vision and concluding with a discussion of activity already under way and further actions needed to achieve this vision.


Languages and language education policy in the United States are inextricably bound to the demographic, cultural, political, and economic forces which have shaped our society from its beginning, and which loom ever larger in the present day. The anti-German nativism sparked by the First World War led to significant reductions in the teaching of languages in the United States, as well as an explicit link between "foreign" languages and anti-American sentiment. Following the relentless extirpation of the more than 500 pre-Columbian Native American Languages and cultures (Macías, 2014), and the appeal and construction of the mythos of a unified ethnolinguistic nation-state (Alba, 1990; Cardinal & Sonntag, 2015), the twentieth century in the United States became "the graveyard of languages" (Rumbaut, 2014, p. 11). This narrative is all too familiar to language educators, and perhaps now so familiar that we language professionals draw a certain degree of grim resignation from the ever-parlous state of language learning in the United States. Nevertheless, the supremely and foundationally human acts of using, learning, and teaching other languages set us apart and give us strength to stubbornly adhere to the noble pursuit of "bending of the arc" toward a multicultural and multilingual American society. However, there is no denying the fact that for much of the past two generations we have constantly struggled with a debilitating mindset that there is little we can do to change the status of language learning in the United States.

While this picture may have once reflected the collective sense of the language profession in the United States, and while it may still ring true to too many of us, it no longer fully reflects the dynamic reality of America's languages in the 21st century. There are clear and encouraging signs indicating growing support for language and language education in the United States:

* an emerging and articulated rationale for languages at the societal and individual level;

* popular attitudinal changes and a decade of innovative investments in language education;

* a proven supply of proficient speakers of a broad range of languages, from programs across the academic, government, industry, heritage, and overseas/NGO sectors; and

* a rising demand for language skills in all these and across society as a whole.

Taken together, these factors, grounded in a quarter century of empirical work on language policy in the United States, form the basis for a proactive, progressive, and prospective vision and collaborative, cohesive, and comprehensive action plan to fundamentally change language learning, and America, for the better. …

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