Language Education in Elementary Schools: Meeting the Needs of the Nation

By Rubio, Fernando | Foreign Language Annals, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

Language Education in Elementary Schools: Meeting the Needs of the Nation


Rubio, Fernando, Foreign Language Annals


1 I INTRODUCTION

Language teaching in the United States has often been subject to the ebbs and flows of social, political, and economic demands. Economic and political reasons help explain the growth in enrollments in Japanese courses during the Japanese economic bubble of the 1980s as well as the recent growth of Chinese and Russian. Likewise, language teaching has been influenced, to some extent, by the advances in research in second language acquisition. For example, recent research on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and its coverage by mainstream media (e.g., Bhattacharjee, 2012) has contributed to a renewed interest in immersion education. Additional research has documented strong and sustained public support for language education (Rivers, Robinson, Harwood, & Brecht, 2013). However, the 2006 General Social Survey found that only 25% of American adults indicated that they knew a foreign language and, of those, only 7% reported having learned the language at school (Devlin, 2015, para. 6). What is more, a 2017 report on language enrollments in K-12 education in the United States published by the American Councils for International Education found that "a total of 11 states have foreign language graduation requirements; 16 states do not have foreign language graduation requirements; and 24 states have graduation requirements that may be fulfilled by a number of subjects -one of which is foreign languages" (p. 6).

This situation differs dramatically from that in other parts of the world. Based on statistical data from 2011, approximately 66% of European Union citizens between ages 25 and 64 speak at least one foreign language, and almost 30% of the population knows two or more foreign languages (Eurostat, 2013, p. 2). These findings are not unexpected, since almost 80% of European children enrolled in primary education in 2009-2010 were learning a foreign language (Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, 2012, p. 57). Given the growing national interest in language learning and framed by instructional policies and practices abroad, it thus seems logical, even imperative, that helping learners to develop proficiency in one or more languages other than English should be a goal of the U.S. educational system.

Precisely in response to this turn in American education, the profession has produced two comprehensive reports in the past few years that analyzed the challenges and suggested possible courses of action. As a result of a collaborative project between a number of national and international associations, the Languages for All? initiative sponsored by the University of Maryland published a report and action plan (Abbott et al., 2013) that drew up a series of recommendations designed to make language learning available to all American students. In addition, at the request of four members of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) published a report titled America's Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century (2017). Prepared by the AAAS Commission on Language Learning, the report included a list of very similar findings and recommendations designed "to improve the nation's language capacity" (AAAS, 2017, p. 6) and help "meet the nation's needs in a shrinking world" (p. viii). The AAAS report recommended that "every school in the nation offer meaningful instruction in world and/or Native American languages as part of their standard curricula" (p. 8). This article responds to the call for action that is stated in those reports and is increasingly voiced by the American public.

2 | THE CURRENT SITUATION

2.1| K-12 language offerings in the United States

While most European countries mandate world language education as part of the elementary and secondary curriculum, no such nationwide mandate exists in the United States (Devlin, 2015), which helps explain both the current situation and the historical fluctuations in world language offerings. …

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