Beyond Foreign Languages

By Stein-Smith, Kathleen | International Educator, May 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Beyond Foreign Languages


Stein-Smith, Kathleen, International Educator


Students from around the world-some with limited English proficiency-come to our campuses, and U.S. students-in increasing numbers and generally speaking only English-prepare for study abroad.

In a globalized world, with only approximately 10 percent of U.S. undergraduate students studying abroad, it is imperative to expand international education both in terms of more flexible study abroad options so that more students will have the opportunity to study abroad and more importantly, in terms of international education on our campuses through internationalization of the curriculum, which would include courses with an international focus as well as an increased presence of foreign languages.

In The Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Education, international education has been defined as "the study of all aspects of society in other countries."

According to the late former president of Fairleigh Dickinson University J. Michael Adams and his coauthor Angelo Carfagna in Coming of Age in a Globalized World: The Next Generation, "language is a critical instrument that shapes one's view of the world. Understanding the meaning of the words other people use yields perhaps the most insight into cultural differences."1

International education, therefore, includes the study of other languages, and the lack of knowledge of other languages and about other cultures is a challenge to U.S. students planning to study abroad and to U.S. campuses welcoming international students about whose language and culture the students, and even faculty and staff, may know little.

In broader terms, the relative lack of foreign language skills among Americans negatively impacts our economic and national security, career opportunities for monolingual Americans in a globalized workplace, and the ability of Americans to effectively navigate our own multicultural and multilingual communities.

The Impact of the U.S. Foreign Language Deficit on Study Abroad

U.S. students-in increasing numbers and generally speaking only English-prepare for study abroad.

According to Open Doors, a report published annually by the Institute of International Education supported by a grant from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, 289,408 U.S. students studied abroad in 2012-13, up from 283,332 in 2011-2012. Worldwide, a total of 886,052 students studied abroad in 2013-2014, up from a total of 819,644 in 2012-2013.2

Although the United States is a nation of immigrants, the majority of Americans do not speak another language, and this lack of foreign language skill negatively impacts our economic and national security, our careers, and our ability to be effective global citizens.

The lack of foreign language skills among Americans not only limits the potential study abroad destinations that many U.S. students are willing to consider, but even the degree to which those who are willing to venture beyond their linguistic comfort zone may be able to maximize their educational and cultural experience because of their lack of linguistic knowledge.

The United Kingdom is the leading study abroad destination for U.S. students, and even those Americans who choose to study abroad in a country where English is not the official language may have little or no knowledge of the local language and be limited to courses taught in English and intended for U.S. and other international students. In addition, their opportunities for local cultural experiences, social encounters, and casual conversation are limited for those who do not possess proficiency in the local language.

However, for U.S. students, although in 2012-2013, 14.3 percent of bachelor's students studied abroad, that number falls to only 1.5 percent of the total U.S. higher ed- ucation enrollment. While the study abroad participation has climbed in recent decades, the relatively low percentage of U.S. students who choose to study abroad may reflect lack of interest, lack of preparation and skills, or both. …

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