The world has about 6,000 different languages, give or take a few. Linguists predict that at least half of those may have disappeared by the year 2050, which means languages are becoming extinct at twice the rate of endangered animals and four times the rate of endangered birds. Predictions are that a dozen languages may dominate the world of the future at best. (Ostler, 2002) For Americans, that's probably a good thing, since we are seemingly genetically engineered to maintain an appalling ignorance of other languages, and have narrowed down the choices we offer our young people to approximately one, Spanish, viewed by many to be the easiest foreign language to learn. It has been described in various places as having an 'impoverished vocabulary,' which means less work for Dick and Jane. The American education system so far is doing nothing to reverse the endangered languages trend, and much to promote it. In fact, there has been a criminal drop-off in foreign language study in American high schools. Here are the figures:
At the secondary level, schools offering Spanish jumped from 86% to 93% in between 1987 and 1997.
All other languages offered, except Spanish for Spanish speakers, Japanese, Italian, American Sign Language and Russian, remained stable or decreased during that time period.
French was taught at 64% of schools, down from 66% in 1987, and German was taught at 24%, down from 28%. (Gramberg, 2001)
Is criminal too harsh a word to use? Probably not. Consider that commentator Richard Lambert called the U.S. "the most devoutly monolingual populace in the world." (Garrett, 2002) In short, the U.S. makes a religion out of being ignorant of other cultures, as Garrett noted. Also, arguably, a culture is founded in great part upon its language. In the face of September 11, 2001, it seems to have been a great mistake not to have learned, as a people, languages other than English. "As far back as 1979, a report issued by the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies stated that 'Americans' incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous, and it is becoming worse." (Garrett, 2002)
Nikolova and Taylor also cite an official document from prior to 1982 that called "our inability to communicate with other nations in their language... shameful, uneconomical, scandalous, and downright dangerous." (2003) Contrary to most opinion, however, they noted that the United States is the" leading country in the world in the field of second language acquisition, with the greatest number of specialized journals of the highest quality" but, on the other hand, that was limited to a sort of linguistic elite, with "educational practices are lagging far behind theoretical research" (Nikolova and Taylor) in teaching those language skills more widely.
If only for our own protection -- so that we will know what others are saying about us and planning regarding us -- it would be helpful to know a few other languages, and not simply the almost ubiquitous Spanish, useful mainly for buying groceries on trips to Tijuana or reading the subway signs in New York City. In fact, it may be argued that any nation that thinks of itself as a protector of the world -- and what else one could make of our incursion into Iraq does not bear thinking about -- has a responsibility to be citizens of that world. And that includes the study of the world's languages.
Garrett made two fundamental assumptions in her article about foreign language study in Change magazine. They are:
The United States has significant needs for communicative competence in languages other than English, and we are far from meeting those needs.
The American education system is not structured to meet those needs. (2002)
Garrett notes that it is difficult to come up with figures for what is not happening, although the ones offered in the first paragraph are a start. As to the second, changing that factor would require national policy initiatives, not unlike those to foster reading skills and others that have come along in the past few decades. It requires, as Garrett points out, resource reallocation (French rather than football), public discourse and the one that is perhaps the most crucial of all: a massive shift in cultural attitudes. (Garrett, 2002)
One of the first reallocations she suggests is bringing the study of languages into the curriculum a lot earlier than high school, and she points out that ours if virtually the only developed country in the world that waits that long.
To be sure, there were a few schools offering foreign languages in elementary grades, but it certainly wasn't national policy. And even so, there has been a significant drop-off. Elementary schools reporting that they teach French decreased form 41% in 1987 to 27% in 1997, and those teaching German declined form 10% to 5%. (Gramberg, 2001) In fact, she believes that the post-secondary system, the colleges, is where most of the expertise in languages is based. If she is correct, it is no wonder that the system is unable to produce people interested in and competent in other languages.
In order to create linguistically competent people, it is necessary to take a good look at how we might accomplish that fact, given the virtual destruction of the language arts infrastructure indicated by these figures. The big question to answer, however, is why should we? What are some very good reasons, to expand high school teaching of a variety of languages, if not, in fact, beginning earlier? It has already been noted that national security is one issue; of course, it would be, probably, only those engaged in intelligence who would have such a need. And it has been noted that languages are dying at a frightening pace. An 'endangered language' list is not likely to work as well as an endangered species list, but surely if some of the knowledge and diversity of the world is lost, we are all that much poorer because of it.
For people to take action, they must generally perceive it is in their best interest to do so, and clearly, the above reasons are. But often, those reasons must be much closer to home and heart to induce action. Following are some reasons that fill that requirement.
Why language study matters to all students
Perhaps the most cogent reason of all to agitate for teaching of foreign languages in high school is, in fact, to induce cultural change in terms of broadening the worldview of American students. They live in a global village, but have no idea what goes on in the house down the block, so to speak. Their horizons are so narrow that when researcher Leon Clark asked high school students twenty-five years ago to do an experiment in out-migration, most of them chose a foreign country to live in, if they were to be forced to emigrate, that had English as its official language. That meant for most Australia or Great Britain. Few chose Canada because the considered it the United States North and therefore not foreign. If that was the case twenty-five years ago, how much worse could it be now with even less language study in high schools.
Back then, the most common reasons students gave for their choices related to "culture, language, economics, and geography." (Clark, 2000) Among the responses were these:
Lifestyle, language, strong economy" (Australia);
English, English, English" (Britain)
People are culturally similar to me, good economy, beautiful landscape" (Switzerland)
Language, climate, beaches" (Australia)
Quiet, peaceful country, high standard of living, similar culture and language" (New Zealand) (Clark, 2000)
There were a few responses in favor of emigrating to some other countries, notably Spain, Denmark and Germany, but usually, those choices were because the student had family there.
When Clark used his "Forced Migration Game," it was for the purpose of launching workshops dealing with the study of other cultures. He wanted to help students clarify some of their mages of the world so they would know what cultural baggage they carry when they travel abroad. In short, he was forcing them to examine their knowledge of other cultures so that they would not behave as the Ugly American. In the post 9/11 world, when we are widely perceived as an ugly culture, it is even more essential that as many citizens as possible contradict that image in their behaviors, and the foundation of that is easily laid in the study of foreign languages, preferably some in addition to Spanish. (In fact, the Spanish apparently already perceive us as OK, and the terrorists perceive them as perceiving us as OK if recent bombing attacks are any indication, and possibly very much like us. So there is no currency to be gained, in fact, by the study of Spanish for the purpose of counteracting the Ugly American syndrome.)
Clark did note that those who had traveled abroad had a "richer store of experience to tap" (Clark, 2000) in…