Campaign urges America to learn foreign languages

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Nearly half of Americans say there is “too little” foreign language instruction in the nation’s public schools, and 50 percent attribute this to a lack of funding, a Roper Poll has discovered.

Enrollment in foreign language classes at universities nationwide has fallen from 16 percent in 1960 to 8 percent in 2002, according to the American Council on Education.

In order to combat this decline, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has developed a campaign to focus attention on the academic, social and economic benefits of studying other languages and cultures.

The Senate has passed a resolution declaring 2005 “The Year of Languages in the United States.” Yearlong efforts will be made to build public awareness about the value of learning languages, to facilitate dialogue between education leaders and policy-makers and to support research on language learning in the United States.

ACTFL President Keith Cothrun said the campaign is aimed toward making Americans better citizens in the global market, as well as working toward increasing their knowledge and understanding of other cultures.

“If the United States is going to continue to play an important role in the global economy and business world, we must be able to understand and communicate with other cultures around the world,” Mr. Cothrun said.

According to a 2002 survey from Healthy Companies International, the average number of languages spoken by American business executives is 1.4, compared with an average of 3.9 languages spoken by business executives in the Netherlands.

Language is the United States’ “last barrier, and it comes from ignorance” said Ambassador Jean-David Levitte of France, who serves on the “2005 — Year of Languages” National Honorary Committee. “We have to make sure that language differences don’t impede our efforts towards globalization.”

Mr. Levitte suggests the best way to do this is from the ground up — by educating students while they are young.

The Roper Poll determined that nearly half — 48 percent — of Americans have at least weekly dealings with someone whose first language is not English, and the majority were 18- to 34-year-olds.

Education is about equipping students with the knowledge to diffuse these global language barriers and providing them with the knowledge to effectively communicate with people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, Mr. Levitte said.

Barbara Bennett, who teaches Spanish at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District, said she encourages students to incorporate their foreign language abilities into everyday life.

“All of our students are required to do 270 hours of community service before graduation,” Mrs. Bennett said. “We have some students going into emergency rooms, translating for doctors.”

One of every 10 students at the school speaks another language besides English.

“Language is just a beautiful thing. … It’s not just about conjugating verbs, anymore,” she said. “I’m convinced that language development makes our students better people, and helps them foster better relationships within both their own neighborhood and the larger business world.”

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