When Will Public Elementary Schools in the US Finally Start Teaching Foreign Languages?

Hebrew, Spanish, and Mandarin. These are just three of the non-English languages that I heard other kids speaking while growing up in the 90’s. What I didn’t know at the time, however, was that I was being systematically cheated out of such language skills, and so was every single other student that attended a public K-12 school.

You see, I came from an English-only household, which is not at all uncommon in the United States of America. When other students did happen to know a language other than English, it was usually a lucky combination of their upbringing and home life, rather than some remarkable formal educational program afforded to these children. Although psychologists and scientists generally agree that it is best to teach children languages before age ten, public schools in the US clearly have not gotten the message and they are in no rush to catch up either.

How Bad Is the Problem Really?

The National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report, published by the American Councils for International Education in June 2017, found that only 1 in 5 public school students nationwide was enrolled in a foreign language course. Even more disappointing was that the vast majority were being taught in high schools — well beyond the prime language learning years of ten and younger — with limited standardized testing to measure effectiveness and with over 90% of students learning in a non-immersive, elective environment. This infers that most students are only learning a language to fulfill university entrance requirements or to fulfill personal or familial desires, rather than by virtue of a prudent educational system that is truly tending to a child’s best interest.

This is in sharp contrast to much of the developed world. The Pew Reserach Center reports that in over twenty European countries, children between ages 6–9 are required to begin learning a second language other than their country’s de facto language. This usually amounts to high fluency rates in any combination of English, French, Spanish, German, and Russian, which are all the most frequently taught languages. Some countries, such as France and Norway, require two additional languages to be taught to children — a dramatic investment in a child’s brain development and future success. Many countries outside of Europe, such as Israel and South Korea, also emphasize English instruction to children in public schools.

Foreign Language Learning Requirements in the Countries of Europe. Credit: Pew Research Center.

The benefits of being bilingual are widely known, regardless of a child’s ultimate career path as an adult. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has identified over twenty proven developmental benefits as a result of young children learning a foreign language, including more robust attention span, improved problem solving skills, stronger memory and recall function, and an improved learning process for non-language skills. This is in addition to benefits experienced in adulthood, such as bridging language and cultural gaps in professional and personal endeavors.

Why Has Nothing Been Done?

This is a good question, and usually the answer goes back to politics. As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of the 2000’s, emphasis on math and English reading skills have been valued over “elective” or “exploratory” skills, such as foreign languages and the arts. All 50 states roughly tend to follow a similar emphasis to some degree, collectively devaluing foreign language skills in favor of more “essential” skill such as mathematics.

Apart from debatable curriculum priorities, funding remains one of the largest hurdles in getting children the education they deserve. It is almost common knowledge and an unfortunate reality that public schools are a top target for budget cuts — a phenomenon that many industries suffer from when employees are expected to work based more on passion rather than financial gain. Artists can most likely relate to this fact.

Even some of the wealthiest parts of the country still use public education as a disposable source of money to poach from, eliminating foreign language courses as a result. Loudoun County, Virginia is consistently rated as the wealthiest county in the country based on median household income. Yet, it was not immune from seeing its foreign language curriculum removed from grades K-8 in 2015 as a result of budget cuts and employee layoffs.

A historic courthouse serves as the county seat in Loudoun County, Virginia. Photo Credit: Karen Nutini at Wikimedia. Used with permission under the Creative Commons License.

So why is public schooling constantly viewed as a target of budget cuts, regardless of an area’s average household wealth or the country’s economic status as a whole? Perhaps this can be a matter of philosophy and sociological study, but seeing how private schooling continues to flourish and grow foreign language programs, it is reasonable to assume capitalism has something to do with it. If money can be moved around to better benefit a certain demographic, or if money (such as paying for private school) could be used to fill in a gap (such as removal of public school language courses), then it absolutely will be done.

What Can Be Done Moving Forward?

The obvious solutions come to mind, such as pleading to politicians and school officials. The effectiveness of this path, however, is slow in coming and rarely causes change without further political battles and influence. Enrolling children in private school for the sake of obtaining a better education is understandable, but only furthers the problem in the long run by normalizing the exodus of quality education in public schools. Further, it is not a solution for families that do not have the money to pay for such an expensive education — essentially causing money or the lack thereof to be the determination of a child’s future, which worldwide is the largest cause of children not receiving a sufficient education.

What can be done starting now, however, is to supplement a child’s elementary school education. Children should be encouraged to explore topics not taught in the classroom, such as arts and foreign languages. Free resources, such as language learning apps like Duolingo, can help fill this gap regardless of household income.

Further, a simple awareness of the lack of foreign education in public elementary schools can help fill this gap. For example, my father is from Iran and he is fluent in Farsi. Yet, I do not know a lick of Farsi because it was assumed I would learn a foreign language in school growing up. While this may be more an example of poor parenting choices, it still reflects a missed opportunity and a naive trust in public schooling which simply is not reality. Therefore, if a parent knows even a little bit of a foreign language, or knows someone that does speak a foreign language, the opportunity to teach their child should be taken advantage of. Even if a limited amount of a foreign language is taught at home to a child, it is still, unfortunately, more than they will receive in elementary school.

My dream is that someday, K-12 public education in the United States can truly place a child’s brain development and future success as the top priority based on scientific proof, rather than valuing the capitalistic viewpoint of cutting budgets and saving money at a child’s expense.