Does America’s Foreign Language Deficit Matter? Ask Google Translate

59817891For many years US education officials have lauded the remarkable success of Finland in math and science, where its 15 year-old students have, along with a handful of Asian countries, dominated the global rankings as measured by comparative international PISA scores. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan lamented that US students are one to two years behind Finland and Korea in math. McKinsey saw the middling performance of American students—in 2012 it ranked 35 out of 64 countries in math and 27 in science—as the “economic equivalent of a national recession.”

Although Finland’s case may be exceptional, its highly selective and well-trained teachers were central to its educational gains, where primary teachers must hold a 5-year Masters Degree and only 7% of applicants were accepted into teacher programs in 2015 (by comparison, Teachers College at Columbia, among the nation’s finest graduate programs, had a 57% acceptance rate). What is less understood is that Finland has also been creative, experimental and strategic with respect to what and how its students learn. As a tiny country facing crippling economic crises—the collapse of Nokia (which was worth 20% of GDP in 2011), demographic challenges within an aging population, and recent economic growth dipping to 1.5% which places it just behind Greece as among the worst economic performers in the EU —Finland doesn’t have time to dawdle on education policy.  Its latest pivot?  Embedding the critical foreign languages of Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese into its high school curriculum which, it should be emphasized, will be in addition to the mandatory English its students are expected to master by their teenage years.

On the surface, this new initiative from a small polyglot corner of Europe seems to be far from the American experience where less than 1 per cent of the adult population is proficient in a foreign language they studied at school; only 7 per cent of college students enrolled in a language course; with 8 in 10 American’s speaking only one language; and where K12 language study is usually not required or, if it is, as an afterthought to core studies. Indeed with the global English market projected to exceed 2 billion speakers by 2020, many Americans may wonder why they should learn foreign languages at all.

Paradoxically, as the rest of the world masters the English language the competitive threat to the US will intensify. America’s lack of foreign language capabilities is already proving to be a growing concern to national security, economic competitiveness, trade and sustainable employment. The root problem is a population unprepared to engage and compete with foreign countries in any language other than English, and a failure to see the advantage that mass multilingualism will bring.


  • Of the 3.3 million employees at the Pentagon and Department of Defense, only 7.9% have reported language skills and almost half of these are Spanish language and therefore not relevant to operational deployments in the Middle East, Asia or Africa. More worryingly, only 28% of positions that require foreign language proficiency were filled in 2015. But this is not a new problem or one confined to the military. Back in 2009 only 61 per cent of foreign language positions were filled at the US State Department, where foreign languages, one would think, are supposed to be part of everyone’s job description. Even today there are shortages of skills in strategic languages such as Chinese, Korean, Dari, Turkish and Russian.
  • In the fight against terrorism, the Intelligence Community or “IC” (including the CIA, NSA, DIA, and FBI) continues to face challenges to “identify or build and enable proficient human capability to process information into actionable intelligence.” The FBI currently relies on a language resource base of roughly 1,400 linguists, which represents an 85% gain in linguists than prior to September 11, 2001. So important are languages to counterintelligence work that the FBI adopted the so-called FLIP (Foreign Language Incentive Pay) in order to hire and retain linguists and translators in critical languages. Yet even financial incentives can’t fill the gaps. Frustrated with this pipeline, the IC launched the STARTALK program to help support immersive language learning at the K-12 grade levels as part of an early intervention solution.
  • In international trade, business services continue to be America’s leading export sector.  Future success will depend on delivering value to customers in non-English speaking emerging markets. It is simply impossible to measure the opportunity cost of a mono-linguistic US workforce from corporations to small businesses to start-ups. Yet anyone who has experienced miscommunications between headquarters and local country operations, time wasted over failed negotiations and contracts, the opening of high-risk markets, and a genuine lack of cultural sensitivity critical to international business success knows how language capabilities can tip the balance. English may be the “global business language” with many multinationals such as Airbus, Renault, Samsung, and Rakuten adopting it as a means of internal communication, but this has nothing to do with how these companies operate with target consumers in countries around the world or how they win and retain business.

To be sure, the US is not Finland and its ability to engage across multiple contexts globally will depend less on foreign language capabilities than other factors such as innovation and hard power. But Americans would be mighty arrogant to ignore the dramatic economic, political, social and security benefits that can accrue from a multi-lingual society. Does anyone believe that America would be less competitive, effective and respected in the world if each of its citizens spoke two or three languages?  If so, how can this national opportunity cost be turned to a gain?

I would argue that the US educational system must shift foreign language learning beyond its current optional or high school elective status and toward a central part of the curriculum. To do this will require ambitious goals.

First, language learning should start early where it can be supported by immersive, well-resourced and supportive learning environments. Forget about waiting until high school and university: every child should begin to learn a second language in elementary school. As an amateur linguist, I would partially credit my ability to get through the challenges in studying Mandarin, Korean and later Russian with the long weekend hours of Hebrew I started learning at age nine, which exposed me to another ancient language with a different writing system far removed from English.  But this path is hardly the norm. I would have had a much easier time learning thousands of Chinese characters if I had been exposed to the language gradually, as part of normal elementary school studies. In building a national education program where the objective is have all students—some motivated, others lazy—be functional in a foreign language, an early start is essential.

Furthermore, those who believe language learning is not a priority may want to examine the other benefits to early immersion. Longitudinal research has demonstrated for years that students enrolled in early language immersion programs perform as well if not better than non-immersion students in the areas of math and science. Bilingual students have also “outperformed monolinguals in the areas of divergent thinking, pattern recognition, and problem solving.” Other studies show that learning languages boosts brain plasticity and the capacity of learning. At minimum, learning a language can enhance rather than distract from building broader cognitive skills and the earlier this becomes part of the normal school day the higher probability of student success.

Second, we must deepen public-private cooperation to build a national capacity for language acquisition. The current K12 battleground at the national and state levels  is simply not equipped to handle alone the dramatic changes in curriculum, testing systems, and language teacher training.  One solution could be language immersion schools, both public and private (or combined), which offer effective and scalable schools.

For example, according to Center for Applied linguistics data US-based language immersion schools grew at an annual growth rate of 10% over the past decade but still represent less than 1% of the total number of K12 schools in the United States. In 2000 there were approximately 260 dual language programs in the US, a level rising to  2,000 by 2011 and an estimated 2,350 by 2015. At present over 45% of these immersion schools focus on Spanish with the balance teaching French (22%) and Mandarin Chinese (13%)—still a very narrow selection. With China looming as America’s most serious economic competitor of this century, it should come as no surprise that Chinese language immersion is driving incremental growth nationally with the number of Mandarin immersion schools rising almost ten-fold, from only 13 programs in 2003 to 147 by 2013 and over 200 by 2015.

Yet the baseline is low. Enrollment figures for each program are unavailable but we can conservatively estimate that total national enrollments in Mandarin immersion programs would range from 17,640 students (assuming 120 students per program, six classes (K-5) times 20 students per class) to 22,050 students nationwide (assuming 150 students per school). That is a drop in the ocean compared to the total K12 enrollment private school enrollment of roughly 55.6 million primary and secondary students in 2016.

Building these programs into a larger platform will require the participation of public schools, charters and private initiatives at all levels, as well as accelerated activity and collaboration from strategic and financial investors. There are a number of effective models worth emulating:

Utah’s Dual Language Immersion Initiative sets the gold standard for state-level commitment to language learning. Established in 2008, Utah provides dual language immersion across 163 schools for the 2016-17 school year, of which 47 are Chinese language programs, 20 in French, 88 in Spanish, 2 in German, and 6 in Portuguese. The model uses is a 50:50 language immersion with English with most courses beginning in the first grade. State funding was initially provided at inception with a goal of educating 30,000 students per year by 2015 and higher benchmarks ahead. Over 20 percent of elementary schools now offer immersion in Utah and the progression of students to college is showing positive results.

• STARTALK was launched in 2006 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and awarded to the National Center for Foreign Languages at the University of Maryland. The program focuses on so-called critical languages and is designed to provide summer programs and promote best practices training to students and teachers at the kindergarten through college level. As a grants-based program, its reach is limited but it acts as a resource center for interested schools and organizations. STARTALK could be template for multinational corporations entering into similar arrangements with universities or other institutions to help support the roll out of language programs to schools at younger ages—an initiative akin to Intel or GE supporting STEM education.

• Privately funded schools such as the Chinese American International School in San Francisco and Hudson Way Immersion School in the New York area, offer impressive language learning models. Yet from a national perspective the norm has been single or small multiple schools, limited in capital funding, focused on a particular geographic cache and backed by Mom & Pop entrepreneurs. There are exceptions: the global network of Alliance Francaise is dotted across the country and brands such as LePort Schools, which embeds early language learning into its Montessori programs, has expanded to multiple campuses in California, Brooklyn and the Washington DC area. Companies such as Language Stars also provide a range of supplementary learning resources at scale.

With government budgets limited, the depth of private capital participation in the language education segment can make a significant difference in scale by creating new schools expansion and funding acquisition roll-ups and collaborative networks among existing, particularly as demand continues to outstrips supply. In Asia, English language immersions school chains (the doppelganger of foreign language immersion) such as Eton Kids, RISE, Elite K12, Maple Leaf, Nord Anglia and Yew Chung International School of Singapore have demonstrated that immersion programs can be achieved at significant scale and that various stages of investor capital are available to support quality expansion of bilingual education models. US investors can take a lesson from the Asian playbook.

Third, educators need to harness technology more aggressively to further widen access, increase retention, and lower teaching costs. Tens of millions of children are learning English online through one-to-one or one-to-many lessons on their computers and mobile devices though companies such as iTutor Group, TAL Education and VIPKIDS in China, and Cheungdahm Learning and Megastudy in Korea. Many of these lessons are private but the technology platforms exist to service school systems or students with supplementary work from home on a cost-effective basis.

From a unit cost perspective, US schools and students deploying education technology to learn languages may have an added advantage: while Chinese or Indian students often must pay a higher rate for online English language teachers, American programs can hire accredited language teachers and tutors across the developing world, whether in China or Colombia or Egypt, at relatively lower cost in both absolute and US dollar terms.

Fourth, students should be motivated with tangible incentives if they make an effort to master a critical foreign language. It is not enough for educators, parents and economic stakeholders to make foreign learning a mandatory skill for living and working in this century; they need to pay for it. Incentives could include college admission preferences, financial aid and/or research support for students with proficiency in “critical” languages learned in prior study, employer-sponsored apprenticeships and internships for students with exceptional language faculties, and start-up capital for ventures that combine foreign language with market or critical research needs.

Recent efforts such as the National Security Language Initiative For Youth to encourage and pay for study abroad, and the Boren Scholarships , which are part of the National Security Education Program for promising undergraduate students, provide a useful blueprint. Yet these programs tend to be narrowly focused on national security and limited in scope to those transitioning to new careers in intelligence, diplomacy and security. Non-security areas where language learning can be used effectively for careers—for example, in global health, environmental science, energy and business—would be well suited to create incentives of their own.

None of these initiatives will be easy, even if the education agenda in the US were not so overloaded with other challenges that include basic reading and math literacy.  But as the rest of the world increases their own language capabilities, the inescapable conclusion is that America will suffer if it does nothing.

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