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America's Descent Into Monolingualism

Competence in foreign languages is a sadly neglected national need

The Modern Language Association (MLA) recently released the results of its latest study of foreign language enrollments in America's colleges and universities. Media coverage of the survey focused on the good news, and some of it is good indeed: From 1990 to 1995 there was a significant increase in the number of students studying Spanish (13.5 percent), and both Chinese and Arabic enrollments grew significantly (36 percent and 28 percent respectively) - though from a very small base to start with.

Apparently lost in the blizzard of positive press, however, was some dismal news: The increases in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and some of the other critical, though less commonly taught languages are not the result of a growing number of students who recognize - as they should - the importance of competence in languages other than English to their personal and professional lives. The increases have come at the expense of French, German, and Russian (the last down nearly 45 percent!). Overall, undergraduate enrollment in foreign language courses has declined since 1990, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of total enrollment.

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In 1979, a report issued by a presidential commission termed Americans' "scandalous incompetence" in foreign languages and international studies a "national disaster." Shortly thereafter, former Sen. Paul Simon (in "The Tongue-Tied American") warned of the serious consequences to our national interest of what has been called our "devout monolingualism." Nearly two decades later, the results of the MLA study show that we have paid little attention to those warnings.

Falling numbers of students

The percentage of all college undergraduates engaged in any level of formal foreign language study was actually slightly lower in the fall of 1995 (7.6 percent) than it was in the late '70s, and less than half of what it was 30 years ago. Even more disturbing, the majority of students who do study a foreign language do so for only two or three semesters; thus few of them ever reach a level of communicative ability useful to their professional and personal lives.

It appears that our students (and, most likely, their parents and many of their teachers) do not seem to see the future looming before them. Yet the demands of that future are clearly visible. The United States faces opportunities and challenges sure to increase pressures for competence in language and cross-cultural communications. As a nation, however, we are dangerously unprepared. These pressures derive from the following factors:

*International economic competition: Our future success in global competition is dependent to a great extent on our ability to accurately understand and communicate with overseas markets. Further, providing services (the fastest-growing sector of our economy) in the international arena demands a much higher level of communications expertise than we now have. Successful ventures in the service arena require a sophisticated understanding of local culture and practice, residence in foreign cultures for extended periods, and interaction with a broad socioeconomic cross section of society - not just with the "gatekeepers" who may have some command of English.

*The telecommunications revolution: An elaborate worldwide telecommunications network has facilitated an exponential increase in the demands and opportunities for rapid transfers of knowledge and information on a global scale. But the US does not have the linguistic and cultural competence to take full advantage of all that the technology provides.

*Global issues: The resolution of a variety of global issues - such as ethnic strife and regional conflict, public health and environmental concerns, famine and drought, international terrorism, and the protection of America's interests and obligations - is to a great extent dependent upon our understanding of their cultural and linguistic contexts, and upon our ability to form effective multinational partnerships.

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*Domestic diversity: The dynamic cultural landscape in the United States makes cross-cultural communications a critical domestic need as well. The country does not provide enough resources for speakers of other languages who live here to acquire English adequately for economic self-sufficiency and social integration (there are tens of thousands of people on waiting lists for English- as-a-second-language courses across the United States). At the same time, we are witnessing - and even encouraging - the rapid erosion of first- language competence in non-English-speaking communities, depriving the country of significant bilingual resources essential to the national interest.

The MLA data suggest neither a high level of interest in nor a high level of preparation for further language learning among American college students. They (and perhaps some of those who guide them in their enrollment decisions) have a tendency to view the study of foreign language as unimportant, irrelevant, and/or impossible. Unimportant, they believe, because the world speaks English. Irrelevant because those students who see foreign language competence as desirable often do not see language programs at their institutions addressing that goal. Impossible because their own experience has often taught them that foreign language competence is not obtainable within the context of the current language-learning system.

Why study foreign language?

These perceptions are - for the most part - inaccurate, but they have been reinforced by our inability to make a compelling case for the importance of learning foreign languages. The traditional argument that knowledge of another language is an important part of being an educated person, while entirely true, seems these days to lack motivational force. Moreover, the nation's public discourse is devoid of any sustained attention to issues of cross-cultural communication.

In fact, competence in cross-cultural communication is a national issue in the same way that economic competitiveness, national security, education, and health care are. Our inability to meet national needs for language competence is, to a great extent, the consequence of systemic dysfunction. Most decisions about language instruction are made locally in the context of immediate, short-term conditions and needs, rather than in the context of long-term national needs.

For example, many colleges and universities are responding to the decline in Russian enrollments by eliminating faculty positions, graduate programs, and whole departments - thus threatening the very existence of the next generation of expertise in this critical area of the linguistic world.

It is essential that we recognize national needs for language competence - and our capacity to meet those needs - as an important public policy issue. These needs must become a component of public discourse in America in ways that provide an informed and intelligent context for decisions about language - decisions made every day, at every level, in every sector of our society.

*David E. Maxwell is director and Richard D. Brecht is deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center in Washington.

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