How Important Is Knowing a Foreign Language?

How Important Is Knowing a Foreign Language?

Have you ever studied a foreign language? Do you think it’s still necessary to do so?

Isn’t it easy to find people who speak English in other countries if you really need to communicate with someone? And aren’t there translation apps for your phone you can download anyway?

What is the value of knowing more than one language in the 21st century? Is it really worth the time, effort and investment?

In “Do You Speak My Language? You Should,” Bénédicte de Montlaur writes:

In January, the Modern Language Association made an astonishing announcement in The Chronicle of Higher Education: From 2013 to 2016, colleges across the United States cut 651 foreign language programs. French was the hardest hit, losing 129 programs, followed by Spanish with 118, German with 86 and Italian with 56. Once these programs close, they are very hard to reopen.

According to a Pew study from last year, only 20 percent of K-12 students in America study a foreign language (compared with an average of 92 percent in Europe), and only 10 states and the District of Columbia make foreign-language learning a high school graduation requirement.

The decline in language education could have devastating effects for generations to come. With fewer options for learning a foreign language in school, a sharp decrease in interest is likely to follow. According to the Modern Language Association, enrollment in college-level foreign-language courses dropped 9.2 percent from 2013 to 2016.

The association says these changes are most likely a direct result of the 2008 recession, which hit foreign-language degree programs harder than many other humanities programs. As programs shrink so does the supply of qualified teachers. It’s a vicious cycle.

And yet, knowing a foreign language is becoming ever more essential. The freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is Spanish-English bilingual, recently tweeted, “Bilingualism is a huge advantage in the economy and the world.” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who at age 29 is already one of the best-known members of the Democratic Party, is a case in point.

Her sentiment is shared by many. In response, some educators and parents are rethinking the way language is taught and calling for expanded access to language education.

Nationwide, parents and teachers have been leading grass-roots initiatives to provide foreign-language learning in public schools, and some universities have instituted innovative language programs. From pre-K to graduate studies, there is a move toward holistic language education, based on the notion that learning a language should be grounded in the real, everyday use of that language.

The article concludes:

If Americans want the next generation to be active participants in a multilingual world, dual-language and multicultural education is crucial. Government spending on foreign-language education and the education of qualified foreign-language teachers needs to increase. More states need to enforce language-education requirements. Colleges need to recognize the importance of their foreign-language education programs. In turn, more parents, students and teachers need to lobby for language programs.

The necessity of foreign-language education could not be clearer right now. The future in America, and everywhere, is multilingual. And so is the present.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— How important is knowing a foreign language?

— What languages can you speak, read or understand? If you know more than one language, how did you learn these additional languages? Was it hard? Fun? How has knowing another language affected and benefited your life?

— If you speak only one language, have you ever wanted or tried to learn a new one? What challenges did you face in acquiring a new language?

— How persuasive is Ms. de Montlaur’s argument that Americans need to study a foreign language? Do you agree with her that the future is multilingual? Should schools require that students learn a second language?

— If you were to study a new language, what would it be and why?

— How much is foreign-language education emphasized at your school? What would you recommend to improve the foreign-language program at your school?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.