Tongue-Tied in America: The Decline of Foreign Language Education in an Age of Globalization



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In the United States the ratio of modern foreign language enrollments to total course enrollments in higher education today is half of what it was in the sixties. The Modern Language Association (MLA) reported in 2009 that since 1965 it declined from 16.5 to 8.6 for every 100 enrollments. Between 1965 and 1987 alone, institutions requiring foreign languages dropped by a third from 88.9 to 58.1 percent. Despite this country’s rich linguistic diversity, the United States suffers from a deficit of college graduates who can hold rudimentary conversations in a foreign tongue. “A quiz,” quipped Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times in 2010, “If a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, and one who speaks four languages is quadrilingual, what is someone called who speaks no foreign languages at all? Answer: an American.” This journalistic project deals with the paradox of foreign language study in the United States as it relates to America’s indifference toward foreign language education. To this end, I trace the public perception of language instruction beginning in early America, when the classical study of Latin was required of all students, and follow its subsequent evolution (or devolution, depending on whom you ask). As American cultural historian Jacques Barzun puts it, “It is a noteworthy feature of 20th century culture that for the first time in over a thousand years its educated class is not expected to be at least bilingual.” Today, enormous threats to language education loom on multiple fronts. Foreign languages are seldom the most respected departments in the academy, and therefore frequently assume low-standing in the institutional hierarchy. Administrators often target these departments as easy victims in times of budget cuts, as seen recently at Alfred University, Bethel College, Drake University, Louisiana State, Fort Lewis College, Washington State, and the University of Maine, to name a few. In one example that left language educators aghast, The University at Albany, State University of New York in 2010 gave their Russian, Italian, Classics, and French programs the axe, despite their institution’s mission statement to put “The World Within Reach.” Other contentious issues abound, including the elimination of language requirements, the increase in non-tenure-track staff, and the two-tier curricular divide between the “language faculty” and the “literature faculty.” What is being done to bridge this divide? What is the purpose of the foreign language requirement? What relationship exists between a liberal arts curriculum and foreign languages? These are among the fundamental questions I have asked scholars, professors, students, administrators, and deans from dozens of institutions across the country in my undertaking to unravel the contradictions, the complexities, and the stakes of the current downtrend in American foreign language education.



foreign languages, education, education policy, journalism, nonfiction