Lagging Language Education Leaves America in the Dust

In the beginning of May, the Joint National Committee for Languages held the 2015 Language Advocacy Day – a day set aside to promote awareness of the importance of language studies.

Every year, when talks of the annual budget for the American education system crops up, the funding for language education seems to get cut further and further.

Cuts are also being made to Title VI grants, as well as the foreign language assistance program. The number of students enrolling for language studies in universities across the country has been in a steady decline. Between 2009 and 2013, students studying languages has lessened by approximately 111,000 people. This is the first major language-education dip in 14 years, and it is certainly a telltale sign of the times we are currently in, academically and otherwise.


Only 7 percent of college students in the United States are currently enrolled in a language course, and within that 7 percent most are students studying European languages. This brings about yet another challenge.

In 2013, for instance, about 198,000 college students were learning French, while only 64 students were studying Bengali. This presents a problem of sorts, since there are only 75 million French speakers worldwide, as opposed to 193 million Bengali speakers. The demand for European languages has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Secretary of Education. In 2010, the Secretary stated that 95 percent of all language studies in the United States were in a European language, highlighting just one of the many drawbacks and issues facing our current language education system.

The reason for all of this, it seems, is closely tied into politics and the views which many Americans share. Views which categorize liberal arts as being an unimportant field and a waste of time, and which hold physical education (and sports) as a joke, rather than a genuine field of education. Much like physical education and liberal arts, languages are seen as a waste of time. An investment upon which one may never see any returns on, and that would amount to nothing in the long run.

Even within language education itself, educators are fighting and squabbling over which languages should receive precedents over others, and which funding should be directed where.

Maybe if the language educaters could come to a consesus about what to learn, they would get more funding.

Maybe if the language educators could come to a consensus about what to learn, they would get more funding.

Even after so many budget cuts and shortcomings, the fact is that language courses are being offered every year, to thousands and thousands of students. What, then, is the real issue? Why aren’t more American students interested in learning foreign languages?

It could very well be that people find language studies to be too hard. The English language itself is so full of rules and exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. Perhaps many students feel that other languages will be just as difficult?

Perhaps the problem is entirely different. With so many enrolling students not being fluent in their own native English, it is possible they feel that studying a foreign language is beyond their reach, and that they haven’t the capabilities to learn.

Regardless of the reason, America is currently lagging in language education. Whether it is due to feelings of academic inferiority, or whether it’s the thought that English is all they will ever require – things aren’t looking well for American language studies. If things don’t pick up, and if language studies enrollment statistics don’t change, the U.S. is going to find itself somewhat isolated linguistically. Like music and literature, knowledge of foreign languages has always been a clear sign of an educated individual. It would be a shame for Americans to miss out on such a rich world of language and culture.

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