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In a popular op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Patrice Apodaca makes the case that it’s time to invest in foreign-language instruction, namely in public schools. We couldn’t agree more, but the buck doesn’t stop there.
Apodaca wastes little time reiterating the need for foreign languages in the modern, globalized economy. That topic has been covered almost to the point of ubiquity—even a bi-partisan Congressional report recently called for Americans “to value language education as a persistent national need similar to education in math or English, and to ensure that a useful level of proficiency is within every student’s reach.”
Instead, she focuses on how we got ourselves into this mess (cuts to foreign language programs in the wake of No Child Left Behind, teacher shortages, etc.) and more importantly how we can get ourselves out of it. A public school parent herself, Apodaca’s solutions target mainly the education system:
“It will take a state-by-state, district-by-district effort to place foreign-language instruction higher on the list of priorities. And even then questions surrounding funding will likely be hotly contested. Where to find qualified teachers will also be problematic.”
Improving and expanding foreign language education in every school in every district is the ideal long-term solution. But the op-ed points out the obvious, long-term problems that accompany such a significant policy shift. The U.S. can’t afford to wait for the education system to find more qualified teachers and fund more foreign language programs at the K-12 level—the benefits of which are a generation away at best.
A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit determined that U.S. businesses are “dangerously overlooking the need to invest in training”, particularly since with 49% of surveyed businesses confirmed that communication misunderstandings resulted in “financial losses after a major cross-border deal has fallen through”.
To mitigate these risks in the short-term, the U.S. needs an organization-by-organization effort to build current language capacity. Businesses, non-profits, and government agencies can directly reap the benefits of their own foreign language training programs. It’s never too late to invest in language skills at the professional level, despite what Apodaca contends about age limits:
“Research tells us that children must begin learning a foreign language by age 10 in order to achieve complete fluency. After the age 17 or 18, the ability to become merely proficient precipitously drops.”
This, as we’ve discussed previously, is simply not true. Research tells us there likely exists a “critical period” for language learning, a threshold after which it becomes more difficult—but by no means impossible—to reach native-like levels.
Consider the many government agencies for whom language skills are mission critical. The Department of Defense and the State Department both provide language training to service members and diplomats aged well into their 30s and 40s, if not older. Many candidates must score an ILR 3/3, defined as “general professional proficiency”, or proficient enough to achieve their mission and represent our country abroad.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, adult learners achieve these impressive levels of proficiency in a relatively short period of time, ranging from about six months for languages like Spanish or French to 12-18 months for more difficult languages like Arabic or Mandarin. While this shows it’s possible for adult learners to achieve sufficient proficiency, full-time language training is not always practical.
Very few organizations can afford the costs—in terms of logistics and in terms of disruption and lost productivity—of full-time, off-site language training programs. Thanks to technology, however, viable remote training alternatives provide similar results with significantly less disruption and at lower costs.
The Congressional report discovered “an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world.” It’s time for those leaders to invest in foreign language instruction at the professional level, too, lest we continue to face the same language deficit for another generation.
To close her op-ed, Apodaca reiterates the difficulties facing language education reform, but implores policy makers to pursue it anyway: “But regardless of the difficulties — funding issues, a dearth of qualified teachers, a lack of political and institutional will — we can and must do something about this problem, and we should do it quickly and decisively.”
She’s right, especially about that last part. Educators, but also policy makers, business leaders, and other organizations, must invest in foreign language skills at all levels to improve our country’s language capacity as soon as possible.