Americans breaking out of Their English-Only Shells

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Mar 6 14:19:02 UTC 2006

Americans Breaking Out of Their English-Only Shells:
 Better resources, opportunities encourage U.S. foreign language students

04 March 2006

By Jane Morse and Todd Bullock
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- For decades, Americans have been stereotyped as unwilling to
learn any language but English. The rest of the world was learning
English, according to the stereotypical American, so why struggle learning
a foreign language? In truth, mastering foreign languages was a grim task
for many Americans in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s.  Many American
students suffered a regimen of dull classroom work followed by long hours
locked up in "language labs" listening to language tapes. But all that has
changed.  Innovative school curriculums, entertaining and affordable
interactive computer training programs, more opportunities to travel, and
a broader global outlook have motivated Americans -- young and old -- to
learn foreign languages.

Adding to the momentum is President Bush's recently launched National
Security Language Initiative (NSLI).  This plan will harness resources
from four federal agencies to increase dramatically the number of
Americans mastering critically needed languages such as Arabic, Chinese,
Hindi, Farsi, Russian and others.  In a January 5 speech given at the
Summit on International Education, Bush said the "broad-gauged initiative"
would enhance the nation's defense, diplomacy, intelligence and knowledge
of other cultures. The seeds sown by the NSLI should fall on fertile
ground.  Consider this:  In a study completed in 2003, the Modern Language
Association (MLA), a scholarly association with the mission of
strengthening the study and teaching of language and literature throughout
the world, found that more U.S. college students than ever before -- some
1.4 million -- were studying a foreign language.  It also found that
American colleges and universities offered a greater variety of language
courses than in any of the previous five years.

Foreign language study in the United States traditionally has been
introduced as an elective at the middle and secondary school levels.  But
parents increasingly are demanding foreign-language study for their tots
in preschool.  According to a 2004 article published in Education Week, a
newspaper of record for U.S. educators, parents want their children
exposed to other cultures and traditions at an early age while maintaining
their own ethnic heritages. Competition for jobs is yet another reason to
learn foreign languages.  In the same Education Week article, Elizabeth
Webb, the program specialist for foreign-language and international
education at the state of Georgia's Department of Education, is quoted as
saying:  "Sooner or later, what I think is going to happen is the
realization of how many jobs we are exporting because people abroad speak
English very well."  The inability of many Americans to speak foreign
languages, she said, is becoming "a competitive disadvantage."

Older Americans, too, increasingly are studying -- and successfully
learning -- foreign languages.  Although some observers believe children
have the advantage in mastering a foreign language, other experts
disagree. Joan Rubin and Irene Thomson, authors of How To Be a More
Successful Language Learner, wrote:  "[T]here is little evidence that
children in language classrooms learn foreign languages any better than
adults [people over 15] in similar classroom situations." Adults, they
write, have better memories, more efficient ways of organizing
information, longer attention spans, better study habits and greater
ability to handle complex mental tasks.  Children, however, are less
afraid of making mistakes and seeming foolish, according to Rubin and

Retirees are finding they now have the time to study a language. Many
seniors have the financial means to travel to foreign lands and want to be
able to order off menus, ask for directions and converse a bit with the
locals in their native tongue.  Other older Americans, descendants of
immigrants, want to renew their ethnic ties and get in touch with the
cultural heritage of their family's homeland by learning the language they
may have failed to absorb in childhood. Also spurring the 50-and-older
crowd is evidence that learning a foreign language may provide the kind of
mental stimulation that staves off mental disabilities such as Alzheimer's

Most important, there are now many more resources for learning new
languages, and the methods for teaching them are much more fun.  Small
children are taught new languages using songs, rhymes, games and
television shows.  College students can stay in dorms that enforce total
language immersion; they practice the language daily in spontaneous and
familiar settings without ever getting on a plane. Affordable computer
programs allow students to learn new languages at their own pace.  On many
of the language-training compact discs, students can record their own
voices and compare their pronunciation to that of native speakers.  The
programs include photos, drills, quizzes and interactive games that make
learning a language engaging and enjoyable.

"Learning a language," Bush said January 5, "is a kind gesture.  It's a
gesture of interest.  It really is a fundamental way to reach out to
somebody and say, I care about you."  He also emphasized that the best way
to talk to people about the universal values of freedom and democracy is
in their own language. For caring Americans, that goal becomes more
reachable every day.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list