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Dwindling K-12 Language Classes Contribute to Fewer U.S. Residents Speaking Other Languages Despite Growing Need

A new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has found that fewer and fewer U.S. residents are able to speak languages other than English despite a growing need for bilingualism. The trend could have negative consequences on "business, international affairs, and intellectual exchange," the Academy said.

Although a number of factors are responsible for the decline, the Academy says one major factor is the lack of language classes being offered in the K-12 sphere.

The report "[p]oints to evidence of the dwindling of language education at every level, from early childhood education to the nation's colleges, with declines in the number of K–12 schools teaching languages, as well as the number of students taking language courses in college."

In 2006, English-speaking adults fluent in another language were asked where they acquired their dual-language skills. The overwhelming majority said they learned the language at home, while only 16.3 percent said they learned the language at school, "reflecting the challenges faced by Americans of developing language proficiency after childhood," the report says.

The report also notes that even though research proves a second language is best studied at a younger age for the greatest chance of high proficiency, only 25 percent of U.S. elementary schools offered language education in the 2007-2008 school year. A more recent survey suggests that number for public elementary schools could be as low as 15 percent.

This is despite the fact that dual-language immersion courses have been proven to help students achieve more later on.

"By the time dual-immersion students reached the 5th grade, they were an average of seven months ahead in English reading skills compared with their peers in non-immersion classrooms. By the 8th grade, students were a full academic year ahead. These findings support claims that learning a second language helps students tackle the nuances and complexities of their first language," the report says.

Overall, the report finds that only 20 percent of U.S. residents can speak a language other than English, and the chances of being bilingual are slim even for those who immigrated to the U.S. as children.

Tomorrow, the Academy will be releasing a final report that includes suggestions for how the U.S. should proceed.

"The forthcoming 2017 report of the Academy's Commission on Language Learning will respond to this data by offering concrete recommendations and strategies to improve language education so that every U.S. citizen can share in the rewards and benefits of learning a language other than English," the Academy said in a statement.

"The Commission will highlight an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation's needs in a shrinking world—even as English continues to be the lingua franca for international business and diplomacy."

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor

12/15/2016

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