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Less Commonly Taught Languages Should Be Anything But 

 

In mid-February, as I have done for the past three years, I made the journey from my home in Bellevue, Washington to Washington, D.C., where I proudly joined language advocates from around the country with the singular mission to increase promotion of and investment in world languages. It was there on Capitol Hill that representatives from the education, research, linguistics, translation and interpreting sectors gathered for the annual JNCL-NCLIS (Joint National Committee for Language and the National Council for Languages and International Studies) Language Advocacy Day and Delegate Assembly. 

Among the group were those advocating for the promotion of and funding for less commonly taught languages, or LCTL. LCTL is a designation used in the U.S. for languages other than the three most commonly taught world languages in our nation’s public schools (91 percent of students study Spanish, French and German). Following the events of 9/11, U.S. Federal Departments and Agencies recognized the strategic importance of gaining proficiency in LCTLs and began funding special programs (under Title VI) to promote the education of these critical languages, including Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Urdu and Hindi. 

For the U.S. to make significant gains in its economy, defense and security, it is of paramount importance that we get more learners to higher levels of proficiency in these critical, but less commonly studied languages. We need speakers of these languages who demonstrate fluency and competence, both in everyday, professional situations, as well as in specialized topics such as medicine, law, security, trade and finance. 

But how, as a nation, do we go about tackling this daunting task, since the number of American students studying LCTLs remains alarmingly low?  In addition to providing opportunities and resources to native speakers of these languages already in the U.S. to bring their skills up to a professional level, initiatives such as “One Million Strong,” launched by President Obama and that aims to bring the total number of learners of Mandarin Chinese to one million by 2020 nationwide, can—and should—be replicated for other LCTLs. Though Arabic is the fastest growing language in the U.S., according to a recent report from Pew Research Center, less than one percent of U.S. students study it, despite U. S. government agencies expressing a much greater need for Arabic speakers to address the complex political, military and economic questions surrounding U.S. engagement in the Middle East. 

And, Hindi—now deemed vital to the economy and national security, as India emerges as one of the world’s fastest growing economies—is second only to Spanish in languages other than English spoken at home in this country. Yet it, too, is studied by just a very small percentage of U.S. students. 

While many of the LCTLs are critically important to our national interest in the 21st century, the low level of current enrollments jeopardizes the very existence of the relatively few existing programs, and significantly restricts access to language learning opportunities for the large majority of students in the United States. A small, but significant, number of higher education institutions, including Yale, Duke University, University of Miami, and the University of California at San Diego currently offer independent language study for credit, to allow more students access to more LCTLs.  

But exposure to languages such as Yoruba, Swahili and others spoken by the overwhelmingly majority of people around the world should begin far earlier than postsecondary education. It has become imperative that we instill interest—and excitement—in LCTL study at a very early age and encourage school districts to offer alternatives to Spanish, French and German so that students will be equipped with the language skills now required to successfully compete in today’s global marketplace. Our nation’s economy, national security and international standing depend on it.   

 About Dr. Lisa Frumkes 

For over 25 years, Lisa Frumkes has worked at the intersection of languages, technology, and education. She joined Rosetta Stone in May 2013 as Director of Curriculum after nearly 10 years at Apex Learning overseeing the creation of content for the high school market, including courses in World Languages, Advanced Placement, electives, high-stakes test prep and English Language Arts. In May 2014, she became the leader of what is now known as the Content Development team, which has created the content for products such as Foundations/Learn Languages, Advanced English for Business, Advanced Spanish for Healthcare and Catalyst. She holds a PhD from the University of Washington, where she wrote her dissertation on the creation of e-textbooks for language learning, and has studied more than a dozen languages.