STEM is missing an important subject: languages

Maybe we should change it to MELTS instead...

Image by Danny Choo on

U.S. policymakers and administrators have long touted better STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) as a way to bridge achievement gaps and spark innovation.

The pressure is coming all the way from the top; the Obama administration aims to increase the number of students receiving undergraduate degrees in STEM fields by 1 million over a 10-year period, claiming “science and innovation are key components of a strong American economy and that increasing opportunities for young Americans to gain STEM skills can both create jobs and enhance our national competitiveness.” We don’t disagree.

But STEM should not be promoted at the expense of other subjects, particularly foreign languages.

Language itself is already the subject of much STEM research. The federal government has funded research projects in computational linguistics, second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, and translation, among other fields. These projects have been funded by numerous STEM organizations, from the National Science Foundation to the National Institutes of Health. This research has brought us revolutionary new developments in machine translation and localization, both of which are crucial in making research, news, media, and beyond accessible worldwide. Innovative technologies have also significantly improved the way languages are taught and learned, allowing students to learn languages faster and retain them longer.

None of this seems entirely essential until you understand how much America’s STEM industries depend on language. Scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are tackling global issues from climate change mitigation to infectious disease prevention. Breakthroughs in these fields don’t typically come from only one lab (or even one country). While the majority of scientific studies are published in English, it is far from the official language of STEM, and not guaranteed to remain the dominant global language. Of the international studies published in English, most are written by non-native English speakers. Even in a routine conversation much can be lost in translation, so it’s not hard to imagine how disruptive it can be to use your second language to convey scientific findings. Slate provides a humorous but not uncommon example:

“Chinese scientists discussing the electrical conductivity of copper nanotubes in a 2007 Royal Society of Chemistry paper, for example, chose a rather unfortunate acronym for the subject of their study. (It rhymes with “runt.”) The acronym has stuck: A new study from this year in Science China, an English-language journal, uses the shorthand — innocuous to people who don’t know English slang and amusing for culturally immersed Anglophones, but hardly helpful for scientists wishing to be taken seriously.

The language industry is essential to furthering every aspect of STEM professions. STEM companies in numerous sectors depend on the professional language industry to access more than $1.5 trillion in overseas markets. Lucy Jeynes, a former modern and medieval languages student at Cambridge and current facilities management consultant notes how languages help her communicate clearly and reach new markets: “In a profession filled with engineers and surveyors, the ability to communicate technical content effectively and quickly has turned out to be a valuable skill. And top roles in my industry increasingly cover EMEA, or emerging markets in Africa and South America, where English is not the first language.”

Yet, policymakers are quite literally voting against foreign languages. Just last month, Florida became the first state to allow students to fulfill foreign language requirements by learning a coding language. We’re a tech company, so we know the benefit of learning to code. But why must is come at the expense of foreign languages? If we’re using the nomenclature argument — that a coding language is a language — couldn’t we also argue that computer science is a science and swap out some biology credits for coding? Because that’s basically the trade-off we’re making. (Ideally students would have access to as many subjects as possible without having to make trade-offs, of course.)

Schools, from K-12 to university, recognize the link between languages and STEM. In small-town Maryland, Anne Arundel County Public Schools have married the two fields, instructing their K-5 students in STEM subjects in Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. The University of Rhode Island’s engineering department offers a 5-year dual degree in engineering and a foreign language, which includes a compulsory year of studying and interning abroad. Northern Arizona University and Valparaiso University have both launched international STEM degrees modeled after the URI program. Educators and administrators recognize that the fastest-growing jobs are in STEM fields, but those fields need more than just STEM skills:

“In our increasingly globalized economy, we need a workforce that’s not just technically skilled, but one that has knowledge about the world — from different languages and cultures, to different environmental and social systems.”

To those who pin one against the other, STEM vs. languages, we would argue that they are one and the same. Competency in foreign languages opens the doors to international STEM markets and results in more and better communication. In the struggle for education reform, language instruction should not be discounted, particularly by supporters of STEM fields.