Originally published in the Winter 2015 MLA Newsletter
This past summer, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) announced the formation of the Commission on Language Learning, “a national effort to examine the current state of U.S. language education, to project what the nation’s education needs will be in the future, and to offer recommendations for ways to meet those needs” (American Academy). I represent the MLA on the commission, whose members include directors and presidents of associations dedicated to language education and to the humanities. This commission follows up on the work of the AAAS Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, authors of The Heart of the Matter in 2013.
The Commission on Language Learning is the result of a bipartisan request by eight members of Congress from both chambers, who asked the AAAS to examine these questions: “What actions should the nation take to ensure excellence in all languages as well as international education and research, including how we may more effectively use current resources to advance language attainment?” and “How does language learning influence economic growth, cultural diplomacy, the productivity of future generations, and the fulfillment of all Americans?” That the need for language study should inspire bipartisan agreement is cause for hope.
This is not, however, the first time that a national commission has been formed to address the issue of language competence in the United States. The 1979 report of the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Study, Strength through Wisdom, offers a trenchant critique of attitudes and inaction. The report notes that “Americans’ scandalous incompetence in foreign languages” explains “our dangerously inadequate understanding of world affairs” (7). The sixty recommendations in the report mostly remained as desiderata, with one major exception. In 1980, Title VI legislation was incorporated into the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title VI programs began to focus on the value of international studies within the context of higher education rather than solely as support for government, military, and security needs.
Another significant outcome of the President’s Commission was the work of Senator Paul Simon, who served on the President’s Commission when he was in the House of Representatives and went on to publish The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis in 1980. Extending the work done in Strength through Wisdom, Simon points to the strong link between language competence and international relations, business, education, and other vital areas of national interest and identifies a resistance in the United States to the study of languages and world affairs, passionately arguing for an end to “the language crisis.”
Of course, we still face a crisis in language study, and conversations about it are ongoing. In my thirteen years as executive director of the MLA, I’ve been invited to many conferences and summits on the issue (see list below). I hear new research and I present data from the MLA language enrollment surveys and other association projects. Yet the research produced at these conferences points to the same basic conclusion that Simon reached thirty-five years ago: native English speakers are voluntarily tongue-challenged, primarily because language education is not accorded priority in the public school system.
At the local level, we see advances in curricular offerings in languages, increasing opportunities to study outside English-speaking countries, and technological facilitation of language acquisition and practice. We could also look to K–12 education, where exciting developments in dual immersion programs are taking place. The MLA, in fact, has established a working group to explore how higher education can cooperate with and learn from the many progressive initiatives taking place across the country at the local level.
But the sad truth is that far too few students are studying languages. At the national level, language study faces more obstacles than ever: the push for STEM careers coming from the White House and the general reduction of humanities offerings on college campuses discourages it. Further, as long as No Child Left Behind and its aftermath are driving the agenda in the Department of Education—and the appointment of John B. King, Jr., to replace Arne Duncan portends this—then language study won’t be prioritized at any level of the educational system.
So I ask myself, what will the new Commission on Language Learning recommend that hasn’t already been recommended? How can the commission possibly exert influence when a long line of heavily influential public figures has not? I look forward to consulting with our membership as I represent the association in this endeavor. And I imagine a day in which United States educational policy embraces Mary Louise Pratt’s dictum: “Monolingualism is a handicap. No child should be left behind” (8).
American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “American Academy of Arts and Sciences to Conduct First National Study on Foreign Language Learning in More Than Thirty Years.” Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences, 30 July 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2015. <https://www.amacad.org/content/news/pressReleases.aspx?pr=10239>.
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Building a New Public Idea about Language.” ADFL Bulletin 34.3 (2003): 5–9. Web. 28 Oct. 2015. DOI: 10.1632/adfl.34.3.5.
President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies. Strength through Wisdom. Washington: US Dept. of Health, Educ., and Welfare, 1979. Print.
Simon, Paul. The Tongue-Tied American: Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis. New York: Continuum, 1980. Print.
Meetings on Language Study That Have Included the MLA
“The State of Language: K–12 Teacher and Higher Education Faculty Capacity.” Internationalization of US Education in the Twenty-First Century: The Future of International and Foreign Language Studies: A Research Conference on National Needs and Policy Implication. Coll. of William and Mary. 12 Apr. 2014.
Beyond Preaching to the Choir: Realizing the Vision of a Multilingual Nation. National Foreign Language Center Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Symposium. Washington, DC. 12 May 2011.
Foreign Language Summit. Central Intelligence Agency. University of Maryland, Hyattsville. 8 Dec. 2010.
Committee for Economic Development and the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress Forum and Luncheon. New York Univ., New York. 16 May 2006.
“Higher Education and Languages: An Overview of Resources, Progress, and Potential.” National Language Conference Center for Advanced Study of Language. University of Maryland, College Park. 30 June 2004.