ERIC Identifier: ED276304
Publication Date: 1986-11-00
Author: Hamayan, Else
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.

The Need for Foreign Language Competence in the United States. ERIC Digest.

In the words of Senator Paul Simon, the United States is a "linguistically malnourished" country compared with many other nations. Despite the large number of individuals from other language and cultural backgrounds who live in various communities throughout the United States, relatively few Americans can boast proficiency in a language other than English. While ample opportunities exist in many other countries to develop proficiency in a second language, exposure to foreign languages in the United States is far from adequate.


Problems related to foreign language instruction in the United States have been both quantitative and qualitative. Significant trends, such as those begun with the passing of the National Defense Education Act (1958), have sparked interest in foreign language study in this country, but interest has never been sustained over a long enough period to result in the development of appreciable levels of foreign language proficiency. Unfortunately, the notion that foreign language instruction is an essential component of the school curriculum has never taken hold for a sustianed period of time, and language study in general has sometimes suffered from being thought of as an educational fad. Although the number of secondary school and undergraduate college students studying a foreign language in this country was never very substantial, this number dropped rather dramatically in the mid 70s, and very few elementary school students were exposed to foreign language instruction in the classroom. Although the increased numbers of individuals studying foreign languages at all levels of the school system at present give rise to optimism, a primary concern must be to find a way for foreign languages to remain part of the standard school curriculum.

Qualitatively, foreign language instruction in this country has focused on the development of formal structural knowledge rather than on communicative competence. Fortunately this is now changing throughout the country as more and more teachers are making use of innovative teaching approaches that promote the use of the foreign language for meaningful interaction. Thus the outlook for the future is good if the present trends are sustained, but it will be many years before we will feel the effects of having had a generation grow up with foreign language training at all levels of the school system.


The geographic isolation of the United States and the growing importance of English in the world have contributed to giving Americans a false sense of security vis a vis their need for foreign language competence. The fact is that the consequences of a mostly monolingual American society undermine our economic, political and social well-being.

From an economic standpoint, the United States suffers from an international trade gap which has a debilitating effect on our economy in the short-term, and which seriously threatens our economic well-being in the future. International businesses that are not adequately prepared to meet the cultural and linguistic needs of their foreign clientele very often lose the big account, and contribute in a substantial way to this economic problem. For example, when General Motors marketed its Chevrolet Nova in Puerto Rico and Latin America, no one realized that Nova, when spoken as two words in Spanish, means "It doesn't go." Sales were quite low until the name was changed for greater appeal. As international trade becomes a more integral part of the U.S. economy, the need for sales and marketing representatives who are fluent in the language of their buyers and who understand their buyers' culture becomes increasingly important.

The second domain that is adversely affected by U.S. citizens' lack of proficiency in foreign languages is political: some claim that linguistic incompetence poses a serious threat to our national security. Prior to the terrorist attack on the Berlin discotheque in March 1986, U.S. intelligence was intercepting messages from Tripoli to the Libyan People's Bureau in Berlin, and was unable to find an American employee who could interpret the messages, which were in Berber. Had these messages been interpreted in time, a tragedy might have been averted. Better intelligence about other countries and better communication with them are keys to political well-being.

Finally, the cultural isolation that results from a lack of exposure to foreign languages deprives U.S. students of a well-rounded global education, which includes knowledge about the fine arts, literature, history, and geography of other parts of the world. Additionally, our refusal as a nation to recognize the need for language competence and cultural awareness contributes to the widely held image of the arrogant American seeking to impose his language and culture on the world at large. The ability to speak other countries' languages with an awareness and understanding of their cultures is obviously crucial to effective international communication.


Foreign language learning should begin as early as possible. Research in the field of language acquisition suggests that for the child undergoing normal development in the native language, the earlier instruction in the foreign language begins, the higher the level of proficiency the child will attain in that language (Krashen, Long, and Scarcella, 1979). Because children are cognitively, affectively and socially more flexible than adolescents or adults, they are naturally more "efficient" foreign language learners. In fact, data from children who are raised bilingually indicate that given a supportive environment, a child can start learning two languages from birth. Moreover, children who are adequately exposed to two languages at an early age experience certain cognitive gains: they seem more flexible and creative, and they reach higher levels of cognitive development at an earlier age than their monolingual peers. Thus there are strong pedagogical and psychological reasons for making foreign language instruction part of the regular school curriculum for students at the earliest grade levels.


All students, not only the gifted, are likely to benefit from exposure to foreign language instruction at all levels of the school experience. Research strongly indicates that intelligence plays only a minor role in predicting the achievement of foreign language proficiency (Genesee, 1976). A positive attitude toward other languages and cultures, an openness and flexibility in learning style, and a high level of motivation are the most important qualities a student can bring to the foreign language learning experience.


The first step in becoming a language-competent society is to embark upon a commitment to language study at all levels of the school system. Attitudinal change is indeed essential, but the way to effect widespread attitudinal change is to institutionalize the study of foreign languages and cultures in our schools. Interested parents, school officials, policymakers, and members of the international business community have become convinced of the usefulness of foreign language study; they must take on the responsibility of convincing others that foreign language competence is desirable, and indeed necessary for our future well-being.

While interested individuals and organizations should be aware of short-term circumstances of the push for foreign language competence in the U.S., such as an advantageous political climate in the Congress, the overriding goal of any campaign for language competence must be to impress upon the public and policymakers alike the importance of a sustained effort in this regard. The development of foreign language competence in the United States will not occur after fits and starts of interest in language study, but only after many years of unwavering commitment to foreign language instruction in our schools.


American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages 579 Broadway Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706

Advocates for Language Learning P.O. Box 4964 Culver City, CA 90231


Genesee, F. "The Role of Intelligence in Second Language Learning." LANGUAGE LEARNING 26(2) (1976): 267-280.


Krashen, S., M. Long, and R. Scarcella. "Age, Rate and Eventual Attainment in Second Language Acquisition." TESOL QUARTERLY 13(4) (1979): 573-582.

Lambert, R.D. and others. BEYOND GROWTH: THE NEXT STAGE IN LANGUAGE AND AREA STUDIES. Washington, DC: Association of American Universities, 1984. ED 249 805.

Simon, P. THE TONGUE-TIED AMERICAN. New York: Continuum, 1980.

Tucker, G.R. "Toward the Development of a Language-competent American Society." INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THE SOCIOLOGY OF LANGUAGE 45 (1984): 153-160.

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