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.
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
WHY AREN'T MORE U.S. CITIZENS PROFICIENT IN FOREIGN LANGUAGES?
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.
WHAT ARE SOME CONSEQUENCES OF LANGUAGE INCOMPETENCE?
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.
AT WHAT AGE CAN WE START TO TEACH A FOREIGN LANGUAGE?
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.
WHO SHOULD RECEIVE FOREIGN LANGUAGE INSTRUCTION?
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.
HOW DO WE BECOME A LANGUAGE-COMPETENT SOCIETY?
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
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Genesee, F. "The Role of Intelligence in Second Language Learning." LANGUAGE
LEARNING 26(2) (1976): 267-280.
Hoegl, J.K. NATIONAL AND STATE NEEDS FOR FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING IN
GOVERNMENT, BUSINESS, TOURISM AND AGRICULTURE. Springfield, IL: Illinois State
Board of Education, 1984. ED 259 588.
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.