The Real Language Crisis

We are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates, and recent draconian cuts to language teaching in colleges and universities are exacerbating an already serious problem.
By Russell A. Berman

We in America are confronting a stark alternative: either open ourselves to an appreciation of human plurality and the diversity of cultures around the globe or limit ourselves to a narrowly normative culture. Will American schools and colleges provide students with opportunities to learn to understand other voices, or will our educational system succumb to the temptations of isolationism and xenophobia?

These stakes are high—too high, evidently, to be left to the faculty. As a sign of the times, it is not generally faculty members who are in charge but rather administrators, who are asking whether the university can afford to teach second languages. In fact, they don’t ask, they just declare, “No, we can’t.”

Some college and university leaders do not want to let this economic crisis go to waste, and, pleading resource constraints, they wield the ax. Wherever the ax falls, there is crisis, and it falls with uncanny regularity on the programs that convey cultural difference: languages.

Targeting Languages

At colleges and universities across the country, language programs have been eliminated, cut back, or threatened with reduction. On the list of the short-sighted decisions, the suspension of admission to all French degree programs at the University at Albany, a campus in the State University of New York system located just a few hours’ drive from Québec, deserves pride of place. Yet while Albany has become emblematic of this new know-nothingism, it is by no means exceptional. It is just a notorious example of contemporary xenophobia.

The year 2010 witnessed the termination of graduate study in French at Rice University, as well as the end of the French BA at South Carolina State University and Nicholls State University in Louisiana. Alfred University in New York, Bethel College in Indiana, and the University of Maine closed down German, while Washington State University began to phase it out.

In 2011, the foreign language BA ended at Tennessee State University, French was eliminated at Foothill College in California, and a master’s program in French is under threat of closure at the University of Nevada, Reno. Howard University is closing its classics department. Extensive cuts to public higher education in Louisiana have resulted in the release of fourteen foreign language instructors and the elimination of degree programs in Latin and German at Louisiana State University, as well as French and Spanish degree programs at Southern University.

These language programs, targeted for cuts, are the ones that enable students to encounter another culture through that profound identification afforded only by language acquisition. Learning another culture’s language allows students to experience that culture from the inside; yet these programs are anathema to those educational leaders who navigate by the North Star of one-dimensionality. One nation, one language, one profound misunderstanding of the linguistic diversity that surrounds us.

Living in language necessarily involves the recognition of other languages. Humans may well be the only animals with speech—language makes us human—but no one speaks a universal Ur-language. Instead, we all speak our own particular language or languages. This means that there are always languages that are not our own, that other people speak, and that we can try to learn as a first step toward understanding others. Can we afford to teach languages? We can’t afford not to.

Second-Language Illiteracy

There is a language crisis in the United States, and we should take a close look and be frank about it. Our language crisis is not the rich diversity of languages spoken in some schools (even if a wide range of languages in a single classroom may in fact pose real challenges to K–12 educators). The language crisis does not reside in the reality of the many languages spoken in homes and at work across the United States. (To get a sense of this linguistic range, take a look at the Language Map of the Modern Language Association at Nor is the language crisis the vigorous stream of other languages that new Americans bring into the country through immigration.

On the contrary, the real language crisis is the exceptionally low level of second-language skills that Americans display. The sad truth is that anyone born into an English-speaking family in the United States will have a difficult time finding a path to fluency in another language. Despite the pressures and opportunities of globalization, we are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Much of the rest of the world cultivates plural language skills. Several languages may coexist in the same territory, or the educational system may guarantee students the opportunity to learn other languages. It is only in America (or nearly exclusively so) that language-learning opportunities are so constrained. According to the National Foreign Language Center, “Eighty-two percent of US residents are monolingual, and the United States is the only industrialized country where language study is, for the most part, optional rather than mandatory and where second-language study begins, in most cases, at age fourteen.” In fact, even that assessment underestimates the scope of the problem, because plenty of US students can leave high school without second-language study. In 2008–09, only eleven states required any language study at all as part of K–12 education.

This abysmal situation looks even worse when we compare the United States with other developed countries. Canada, of course, pursues language learning in English and in French as part of its national self-understanding. In Europe, some 50 percent of the population over the age of fifteen report being able to carry on a conversation in a second language, and the European Union has set a goal of equipping all citizens with proficiency in two non-native languages. This level of language ability will obviously represent an enormous human resource in the global economy, which is to say that the American model of education for monolingualism deprives our students of the skills they will need in tomorrow’s economy. The endemic hostility to language learning is a war against our next generation.

Yet the argument for language learning is not only about specific skills for economic competitiveness. More important, it is about the enhanced intellectual and cognitive capacities that come with language learning. Studying another language strengthens the ability to understand cultural difference. Moreover, studying another language simultaneously contributes to one’s understanding of one’s own language by amplifying metacognitive awareness of linguistic issues. Studying a second language does not undermine one’s native language; on the contrary, second-language study allows students to use their first language with greater intentionality.

The unfortunate corollary, however, is that the degradation of second-language study contributes to declining literacy in the United States, a decline that is evidenced by the poor performance of US students in the 2009 study of the Program for International Student Assessment. Sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the program tracks the achievements of fifteen-year-old students in several skills. As far as reading ability goes, the United States—whose educational system was once the envy of the world—ranks only fourteenth, far behind the schools in parts of China, South Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Canada.

Yes, we have a language crisis in the United States, and the lack of second-language learning is now spilling over into first-language literacy deficiencies. For all of our monolingualism, we don’t even learn our one privileged language well.

Confronting the Crisis

To begin to solve our literacy problems, we need to address the language crisis—the insufficient access to second-language learning. To become competitive with educational systems in Canada and Europe, the United States needs to commit to building language programs that start at an early age, continue through K–12, and lead into advanced study opportunities at the college level. To provide our citizenry with full access to literacy, we need to set a goal of equipping every student with strong skills in a second language. We cannot reach this goal with just a year or two of instruction. It will require a comprehensive and articulated instructional program that can convey advanced language abilities coupled with significant cultural knowledge: universal bilingualism.

That is an ambitious goal, and it appears as elusive as ever. While only a few years ago the media were replete with reports of globalization, today we face a rollback of language learning. In the budget battles in Washington, the Department of Education has shown no hesitation in offering up its few language programs for sacrifice: the venerable Title VI/Fulbright-Hays Program faces a 40 percent cut. This hostility to language learning should come as no surprise. The key federal funding program to schools, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s much-touted Race to the Top initiative, failed to pay any significant attention to second languages.

The predisposition to cut language programs flies in the face of evidence of public interest. Where school systems offer bilingual immersion programs, they are in high demand. Parents evidently recognize the value of language learning for their children. Moreover, college students continue to enroll in language classes. The Modern Language Association recently released its triennial report of language enrollments in colleges and universities, showing a 6.6 percent growth rate in the period 2006–09, part of a long-term trend. What’s more, enrollment in all of the top ten studied languages has increased during this period, in some cases moderately (German is up 2.2 percent) and in some cases dramatically (Arabic is up 46.3 percent). It is clear that even without requirements and despite the prejudices of a monolingual culture, college students want the chance to learn other languages.

We should challenge the argument that language enrollments are too small and that programs therefore need to be cut. Our challenge need not be based only on the pedagogical grounds that certain language classes need to be small to facilitate student learning. If our critics want to apply an enrollment metric to language classes, we should insist that the same metric be applied equitably and across the board to all fields and all classes. At public institutions, we should insist on seeing all the data and, where open-records laws or freedom of information legislation is applicable, we should insist on transparency and request all relevant communications. Administrators’ claims that particular language program enrollments are too low may be inaccurate or overstated, and if budgets must be cut, we have every right to ask whether reductions might not target areas less relevant to the academic mission of an institution—for example, administrative growth. This means that the faculty should try to recapture the initiative in academic planning. This also means that we faculty members in the languages will have to reach out more effectively to colleagues in other fields to convince them of the importance of second-language study.

Even though the United States needs more second-language acquisition opportunities, powerful forces in politics and higher education seem dead set on denying students the chance to learn. Since we know that enrollments are generally growing, the attack on language cannot be explained simply as a matter of declining demand (which is not to say that particular programs may not be performing as well as they could). What, then, could explain the impulse to cut languages? In the context of a monolingual cultural predisposition, learning another language seems incomprehensible to some, even to some education leaders. We must do a better job of explaining the importance of languages. In particular, we have to underscore again and again that globalization is not an “English-only” process. To equip today’s students for their futures, we have to start building more language programs now. That agenda also implies the urgency of training a new generation of language faculty.

Furthermore, in the context of a general casualization of the academic workforce, reliance on non-tenure-track faculty members is particularly high in second-language instruction. Higher education administrations target the languages because, in terms of employment status, many language instructors are among the most vulnerable. It cannot be repeated often enough that this shift to a contingent faculty has a deleterious impact on the quality of student learning because it degrades the working conditions of instructors. The conclusion to draw is this: to be serious about the labor question in the humanities, we also have to be serious about the language question. The threats to language programs are another face of the attacks on the status of all faculty members. The efforts to reduce or eliminate language study are a particularly worrisome aspect of the current assault on American higher education. The fight for the languages is everyone’s fight.

Russell A. Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, with appointments in comparative literature and German studies. He has written widely on modern literature and cultural theory, and he is the 2011 president of the Modern Language Association. His e-mail address is [email protected].