Languages

Report reveals divergent trends in modern language job market

Data released ahead of MLA convention set tone for hiring in the humanities this season.

The domination of English-language journal publishing is hurting scholarship in many countries (opinion)

Is your first language English? If so, imagine that you are now required to write about your research using only Spanish or Japanese. Many scholars around the world are facing a parallel situation, with pressures to publish their work in English increasing markedly in the past two decades. Indeed, many people now assume that English is the global language of scholarly publishing.

This claim is usually supported by evidence from the limited universe of around 27,000 journals included in the Web of Science (WoS) indexes -- most prominently, the Science Citation Index -- most of which publish in English. However, more than 9,000 peer-reviewed scholarly journals are being published in other languages, with French (3,500), German (2,700), Spanish (2,300) and Chinese (1400) contributing the highest numbers. Most of these journals are excluded from prestigious journal indexes, thus perpetuating the ideology that English is the global academic lingua franca.

The pressure to publish in journals listed in prestigious indexes has become a global trend, most recently reaching Latin America and Africa. Some multilingual scholars do view using English as a way to reach a broader academic audience than their local context, language or research community affords. But after closely examining the effects of this trend on academics for nearly two decades, we’ve seen little attention being paid to what is lost in this focus on English. The consequences of this major shift in the creation and distribution of academic knowledge, as well as the burdens it creates -- even for scholars who welcome it -- need to be more carefully weighed.

The trend for English-medium publishing emerges from neoliberal policies that affect the goals, activities and working conditions in higher education. Publications in English signal the “internationalization” of institutions of higher education, as publication metrics are key criteria for the global rankings of universities. However, achieving these valued English-medium publications adds burdens to the work of many multilingual scholars. And no, they can’t just get their work translated -- even if scholars have funds for translation (which is expensive), it’s virtually impossible for most scholars to find translators who have a high level of academic English and know both the disciplinary content and the rhetorical conventions of academic journal articles.

As well, policy makers and administrators often lack an understanding of what’s needed for English-medium publishing: financial resources to conduct research and attend conferences to share knowledge and build networks, time to write, and funds to pay for editing support for English text production.

Another consequence of the global push to publish research in English is the loss of knowledge locally, as it may not also become available in local languages given the taboo against “dual publishing” of research. Not all local scholars or students speak or read English, so exporting research produced in local contexts for global, English-speaking audiences may hinder the development of local research cultures and societies more broadly. And while English has long been the dominant (but not only) language in scientific journals, pressures for English are now reaching social sciences and humanities scholars. As a result, scholars who write about, for example, Hungarian history are now being pushed to publish in English, even though a large part of their research community is likely to be local or regional.

Institutional policies that advance the English-medium publishing agenda work in implicit and explicit ways contribute to the problem. Implicitly, the nesting of English in many of the metrics used to evaluate the work of academics, including the citation indexes and top-ranked journals published by Elsevier, Springer and other European and North American publishers, removes questions of linguistic medium from the conversation -- English becomes a presumed requirement. Explicitly, evaluation guidelines that privilege publishing research in English ignore other ways of evaluating research quality. When scholars are evaluated based on publishing metrics centered on the impact factor, the h-factor or the ranking of journals in Scopus or WoS indexes, these regimes sidestep deeper conversations about which research topics and questions are valuable and to whom.

Though English continues to spread as a major linguistic medium for academic knowledge production, it’s not too late to consider ways to change some practices of knowledge distribution, for the benefit of individual scholars around the world, their research communities and their geopolitical contexts.

First, policy makers and administrators must understand that communicating research in English is first and foremost an issue of the resources needed to provide scholars with time and funds for doing research, traveling to conferences, and getting support for writing in English. Second, anglophone researchers and publishers -- where most journal gatekeepers (editors, peer reviewers) are located -- also need to consider the conditions of knowledge production for our counterparts worldwide. Journal referees need to have more understanding when reviewing texts (for example, more tolerance for nonstandard varieties of English) and journals need to devise more ways to support multilingual colleagues. Finally, this same anglophone publishing community should reconsider the ban on dual publication to allow the same research findings to be published in the local language for the benefit of local communities and in English for a wider audience.

Mary Jane Curry is an associate professor in the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester. Theresa Lillis is a professor in the Faculty of Education and Language Studies, the Open University, U.K. They are co-editors of “Global Academic Publishing: Policies, Perspectives and Practices” (2017, Multilingual Matters) and co-authors of Academic Writing in a Global Context: The Politics and Practices of Publishing in English” (2010, Routledge) and “A Scholar’s Guide to Getting Published in English: Critical Choices and Practical Strategies” (2013, Multilingual Matters).

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Cutting the federal budget for language programs threatens America's security (essay)

When I was a student in Nanjing University in China in the early 1980s, a professor there told me that if I spoke no Chinese at all, I would always be a metaphorical window shopper in his city, admiring the goods on display from a distance on the street. But after investing the time and effort to become proficient at Mandarin and knowledgeable of Chinese custom, I would be invited by the shop owner to come inside and enter the room where his real treasures were kept.

I have had many occasions since then to reflect on the wisdom of my professor’s advice and encouragement. As the deputy commander of the UN security force in Panmunjom in Korea, defense attaché to China, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan and the United States ambassador in Kabul, I have found myself at the intersection of cultures and languages -- often when the stakes were much higher than a mere trip to the local shop. Yet the lesson has withstood the test of time and experience: a working knowledge of another culture, its language and norms, its history and ideals, is often the difference between a failed and a successful mission.

Over the past three years, I have been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on Language Learning, a group convened in response to a request from a bipartisan group of congressional representatives and senators. Our final report, “America’s Languages,” provides ample evidence to support the notion that proficiency in English, although crucial to our global success, “is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world, nor the needs of individual citizens who interact with other peoples and cultures more than at any other time in human history.”

For all of these reasons, I am particularly concerned that the budget recently released by the White House proposes elimination or drastic cuts to international education and study abroad programs, many of which were already compromised by the previous administration. The president’s budget proposes eliminating the funding for language education in the Department of Education, which had already been cut by 43 percent in the Obama administration. It recommends a 55 percent cut to the exchange programs in the Department of State. While a modest increase of 3 percent is proposed for the Defense Language Institute, the president’s budget also proposes a 20 percent increase in enrollments. These and other proposed cuts threaten our national language readiness -- which, as we saw in the aftermath of the attacks of 2001, is a significant factor in our ability to respond to international challenges.

Although they are saddled with abstract names which make them seem distant from the concerns of people outside the Washington Beltway, Title VI of the 1958 National Defense Education Act and the educational exchange programs in the Department of State are critical to our nation’s ability to teach languages vital to our national security and economic growth. The Language Resource Centers and the National Resource Centers funded through Title VI help support more than 20 vital Department of Defense language programs, foreign area officer training for the U.S. Army and advanced language education for federal employees in dozens of government agencies. Ultimately, if such programs are cut, we will be less able to communicate with and understand our allies and potential adversaries abroad, and would be severely hindered in our negotiations.

Until recently, there has been strong presidential and congressional support for these programs -- from the administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy through the George W. Bush White House years, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld helped lead the National Security Language Initiative, an unprecedented effort to ensure adequate levels of funding. These leaders knew that market forces alone will not attract young talent to study critical-need languages, including those of strategically vital and unstable regions like Southwest and Central Asia.

Throughout my career, I have been keenly aware of both the immediate operational and strategic value of language skills and cultural knowledge. These programs, which represent a small and vanishing percentage of the federal budget, need to be funded. We cannot afford to become a nation of window shoppers.

Karl Eikenberry is an Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow, director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative, at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and a professor of practice at Stanford University. He served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from May 2009 until July 2011.

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Undergraduate foreign language requirements aren't particularly effective (essay)

Learning and Languages

The concern over rising tuition has led people to increasingly evaluate higher education in terms of a return on investment. And that, in turn, has been a source of anxiety among faculty members, especially those in the humanities.

Could it be that tackling computer science or organic chemistry has a higher return in postgraduate salary trajectories than a major in French literature? Further, why is it that so many colleges and universities require that their undergraduates demonstrate some level of proficiency in a foreign language? This persisting language requirement for graduation piqued my curiosity. Typically any language qualifies for the requirement: Urdu, Navajo, Spanish and, in increasing popularity, American Sign Language.

Most colleges and universities are clear about the underlying rationale for their language requirement. Take for example, Columbia University’s undergraduate requirement.

The foreign language requirement forms part of Columbia College’s mission to prepare students to be tomorrow’s conscientious and informed citizens. Knowledge of another’s language and literature is the most important way to begin to know a country and people. The study of a foreign language:

  • Sensitizes students to world cultures, simultaneously making them aware of their own culture within that context;
  • Introduces students to the differences in structure, grammar and syntax that distinguish two languages, and to the intimate links between language and cultural meaning; and
  • Contributes to the development of students’ critical, analytical and writing skills.

Yet the question remains whether the requisite student investment in foreign language proficiency matches up meaningfully with the intended intellectual outcomes.

Most language requirements use the phrase “language proficiency” as the requirement’s goal and assess it by a language exam or passing grades in several semesters of beginning or intermediate college-level language instruction. At those levels, language classes and exams by their nature focus on vocabulary, conjugation and syntax. So it is unlikely that the cultural issues associated with the requirement are often meaningfully addressed. They could be, but that would require two or perhaps three or four times the commitment in classroom hours. That is simply not practical, given all the other important breadth and skill requirements of most undergraduate programs.

And, as far, as I can tell the question of whether elementary foreign language learning enhances students’ critical, analytical and writing skills in their native language has not been seriously researched. I contacted a number of academic foreign language scholars and staff members at a variety of associations that promote foreign language learning in postsecondary education to ask about research. As best as I can determine from the responses I have received, other than a few fragmentary statistics, the question about language learning outcomes remains largely unanswered.

We do have some estimates on language proficiency. By one estimate, less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a United States classroom. Another study estimated the proportion at a little less than 2 percent. A third calculated 10 percent. These are difficult estimates to make because they are based on gross numbers of language students and separate surveys of adults reporting on their language skills.

Yet they may be realistic, given the views of some in the language community. Eckhard Kuhn-Osius, a professor of German language at Hunter College in New York and chair of the American Association of Teachers of German Testing Commission, asserted in a study in 2001 that “practically no student who fulfills a language requirement of two, three or four semesters will have acquired professionally relevant language proficiency.”

Given the lack of hard evidence in the scholarly literature about language-proficiency outcomes, I decided to undertake my own independent survey of American four-year college graduates through Survata, which conducts online survey studies. We know that 84 percent of American adults have some form of online access, and the number is probably well above 90 percent for college graduates, so an online study seemed appropriate. (Traditional telephone surveys have response rates under 10 percent, so the alternatives to an online survey may actually be more problematic.) Survata uses a variety of techniques to provide a census-representative sample with a sampling accuracy of plus or minus about 3 percent for samples of 1,000 respondents. (In this case 1,003.)

The Study’s Results

Here’s what the survey revealed. Of this sample of American college graduates, 61 percent reported that, when they enrolled, their institution had no language requirement, and 39 percent reported that a foreign language requirement was in place. Students at institutions where it was required took an average of three semesters of a foreign language, while those at institutions that didn’t require it took a little more than one semester. Clearly, requirements make a big difference in exposure to foreign language instruction, but there appears to be significant language study in nonrequirement institutions, which may be taken to be a good sign. Exactly half of the respondents who have graduated recently reported their institution had a foreign language requirement. Older respondents, however, were more likely to report that they had no language requirement when they were students, which may mean there were fewer requirements decades ago or that it was more difficult to recall the rules in force back then.

We turn to a key question: What is the relationship between adult foreign language proficiency and the number of semesters of study, and how does the existence of a language requirement interact with these dynamics? First, let’s take a look at the distribution of self-reported levels of current adult fluency among those who studied foreign language in college.

Bar chart showing five categories of fluency. 1: Able to use the language fluently and accurately (11% of respondents). 2. Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements (13%). 3. Able to use questions and answers for simple topics and basic needs (29%). 4. Understanding limited to occasional isolated words and phrases (39%). 5. Can't remember a single word (8%).If we consider the top two categories as a reasonable level of language proficiency, we find that, among those in this sample of college graduates who studied foreign language in college, a little less than a quarter (24 percent) are proficient. But if we exclude those who were language majors or who reported that the language was spoken extensively in their home or community, the level of proficiency drops by half to 12 percent. Interestingly, the number of those who said they were proficient but didn’t major in a language or speak it at home was 15 percent in institutions without language requirements and 10 percent in institutions with language requirements.

Thus, statistically speaking, the foreign language requirement appears to have no meaningful effect on the language proficiency of graduates from those institutions. All of the variation in proficiency is explained by students opting for majoring or minoring in language study and/or exposure to the language in their home or community. Males had modestly higher levels of language proficiency than females, older respondents modestly lower than younger ones.

Another key question is the impact of language study in college on cultural sensitivity and global awareness. I had limited opportunity to assess those dimensions in our short survey, so I asked simply if the respondents were inclined to seek out or to avoid foreign cultures and languages. The percentage reporting from institutions requiring language instruction that they seek out foreign cultures and languages was 23 percent and from nonrequirement institutions it was 20 percent -- a difference small enough that it cannot be distinguished from sampling error.

It seemed possible that a language requirement could have a boomerang effect -- turning some students away from further language learning. That turned out not to be the case at all. Fully 45 percent of the respondents volunteered that they enjoyed language learning (the same percentage for requirement and nonrequirement institutions) and only 9 percent noted that they disliked language learning. And, again, we found no significant difference for requirement and nonrequirement institutions.

Such complex phenomena as critical thinking skills and cultural or linguistic sensitivity are not easily assessed. Part of the challenge is a lack of clarity about what educators mean when they use such terms. The increased attention to learning outcomes and systematic assessment in higher education may bring some greater definition to these iconic and potentially overused educational catchphrases.

What conclusions might we draw from this preliminary analysis? It appears that the language requirement does not generate a boomerang effect, turning students off or leading them to avoid foreign cultures languages and literatures. But it appears, as well, perhaps as should be expected, that three or four semesters of language instruction, required or otherwise, does not make much of a difference in adult linguistic capacities.

My view is that the current tradition of language-proficiency requirements has it backward. It requires the study of foreign language vocabulary and grammar under a potentially false pretense that exposure of a few semesters leads to cultural and linguistic sensitivity and critical thinking skills.

My proposal is that colleges and universities should start with courses focusing on globalization and cultural diversity, reinforced by study abroad opportunities, which will generate a natural demand for foreign language instruction as part of a more globally oriented curriculum. We should set aside bureaucratic requirements and instead focus our attention on motivating students’ intellectual pursuits with a curriculum that takes outcomes and assessment seriously.

W. Russell Neuman is a professor of media technology at New York University’s Steinhardt School and author of The Digital Difference: Media Technology and the Theory of Communication Effects (Harvard University Press, 2016).

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Intercultural perspectives and the study of languages should inform the academic content of many disciplines (essay)

Learning and Languages

Those of us who teach and research in departments of world languages engage in work that spans the globe. We are multilingual, multicultural and interdisciplinary. But in the current climate of utility, we are struggling to prove our relevance, even as our universities espouse the values of internationalization and cultural competence.

A recent publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century,” reports on this contradiction, concluding that the United States needs more people to speak more than just English: “There is 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, nor the needs of individual citizens who interact with other peoples and cultures more than at any other time in human history.”

How did we get here? We can point to three recent trends in postsecondary education that have negatively impacted the study of world languages in significant ways.

First, the number of colleges and universities across the nation that require language study has dropped from 53 percent to 37 percent. Perhaps accordingly, enrollments in languages other than English between 2009 and 2013 dropped at a precipitous rate, a decline that includes French and Spanish alike. As a result, at a growing number of colleges and universities, language departments are ceasing to offer majors, with surprising losses at institutions situated in heritage-learner communities (Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and the University of Southern Maine dropped the French major, for instance).

Second, to better understand this statistical plummet, we can look to current trends in American higher education, where the very goals of learning are up for debate. As Robert Thompson has written, the notion of higher education as knowledge in the service of society is being contrasted with, and sometimes replaced by, a neoliberal model that connects college education to economic needs, positing students as consumers. Fields of study are marketed based on their use in “the real world,” and our students feel pressured to prioritize job placement over intellectual exploration.

In such an environment, a biomedical engineering degree is appealing because of its clear path to a job in biomedical engineering. A French degree, on the other hand, does not lead to a job “in French.” Students with second-language majors must be resourceful self-marketers who are able to position themselves for a variety of jobs that will value their skills in critical thinking, teamwork and cross-cultural communication.

And finally, related to degree professionalization is the renewed focus on STEM education. In response to shortages in STEM-related disciplines, federal and state governments have increased funding for those fields, incentivizing programming in K-12 schools through postsecondary institutions. In the current financially challenged climate, however, public figures have unfortunately positioned STEM in opposition to the humanities. As Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin recently remarked about his state budget allocations, “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.” That kind of divisive discourse elevates STEM by disparaging French studies, implying that education is a zero-sum game.

Comments like Bevin’s mischaracterize our field entirely, casting it as a solitary intellectual pursuit rather than as a communicative practice that grapples with real-world issues. Our French literature colleagues link 18th-century travel narratives to today’s mass migrations, and Molière’s theater to political satire. These approaches help students decipher contemporary concerns through a historical lens, offering proffered solutions to consider, value or reject. Our colleagues also teach courses in translation and interpretation, in business, and in community health. Comments like Bevin’s -- and the ensuing media attention they garner -- ignore the breadth of our collective offerings and attempt to remove them entirely from the politically charged bargaining space of public education.

Meeting Students Where They Are

What are we to do in the face of this news-media discourse, knowing that it has a significant effect on parents and policy makers, students and administrators? Do we dig in our heels and defend the study of Balzac and Cervantes? Or do we focus exclusively on languages for specific purposes, or LSP, which addresses immediate and specific industry needs, to align ourselves with STEM fields? Such binary choices create internal conflicts and can pit colleagues against each other in battles for student enrollment.

Another approach is to take some of our languages out of language departments and place them throughout our campuses, making us more visible and valuable within the university at large. Serving students across various disciplines, Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum, or CLAC, offers a way to help reconcile what has become a polarizing debate. On the one hand, CLAC’s focus on integrating languages and cultures across a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts aligns with recent trends in higher education. CLAC courses help students gain discourse competence for work in fields like global health and environmental sciences, demonstrating the value and utility of language study. An introduction to a public policy course, for instance, offers a discussion section in Mandarin that explores policy briefs and case studies from China. Perhaps as a result of this applied learning, the CLAC consortium has expanded to include 25 institutional members, with an increasing number of independent programs.

On the other hand, unlike courses that focus specifically on developing skills for the workplace, CLAC engages students by exploring culturally specific solutions to real-world issues, thus mirroring the intellectual values of the traditional university model. Students in a global health Hindi CLAC explore the underlying beliefs and behaviors that are associated with health disparities in India, while students in a public policy Spanish CLAC analyze case studies of Latinx voting trends. Community-based learning can be incorporated easily into CLAC, further showcasing applications of language acquisition. At its core, the CLAC movement demonstrates that intercultural perspectives can and should inform the teaching of academic content in many disciplines, making language study relevant -- even indispensable.

The current climate of utility poses a challenge for the humanities -- and for world languages in particular. For our departments and the interdisciplinary, international work that we undertake, we must show that we play an important role in student learning and development. As the American Academy’s recent report suggests, “Ultimately, it is up to all of us -- parents, students, educators, policy makers and businesses -- to make language learning a valued national priority.” And in order to survive, and even thrive, we must be visible.

That does not mean giving up the intellectual work of our field, but it does mean that we must meet students where they are, both mentally (worried about job prospects) and physically (not solely in our departments). By embedding language across our campuses, CLAC’s expanded opportunities can help us claim our space in strategic ways and provide invaluable benefits to students, our institutions and indeed the world.

Deb S. Reisinger directs the Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum initiative at Duke University, where she is an assistant professor of the practice in the department of romance studies. Her current research focuses on community-based language learning.

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Let's not assume all non-native speakers need remedial help (essay)

Forty years ago, I was assigned to teach “Open Enrollment English” at the City College of the City University of New York.  The course was classified as remedial, and credits were non-additive.

Walking sprightly and empty-headed into the class, I found one-third of them were off the boat from Hong Kong, one-third off the boat from San Juan, and most of the other third off boats from Palermo, Porto and Gdansk (remember: this was 1970). The first writing assignment produced three different versions of English, and I had no idea where they came from -- or how. 

The Chinese guys in the back row were always heads down, thumbing through dictionaries.  What I now know to be their lexical transitions were pretty good, but there wasn’t a preposition to be found in their papers. No kidding! 

The girls from Gdansk showed hard silent faces, splattered their pages with diacritics, but left no trace of articles. No kidding! I half-understood the guys from San Juan jabbering in Spanglish and felt good about it, but they wrote that way, too.  Most of what I learned about all this happened much later. I walked into that class as a thorough naif.

A scan of the usual panic headlines of the past decade will easily turn up “perfect storms,” “tsunamis,” and other dire weather patterns lying in the future of higher education. Some of these are covers for race/ethnicity mix change, others for the deleterious effects of app addictions, and still others for the rise of economic inequalities. I have a shelf for the publications and reports bearing such Jeremiadic news and threats.  It’s labeled, “the usual,” and includes more sophisticated but even darker analyses of “separation,” “undereducation,” “stopped progress,” and “crises” strewn about like dead flower petals. 

However well-intentioned, these analyses have the effect of telling large groups of higher education students and potential students that they are lacking something, or that “our future would be brighter if only we addressed something you are lacking.”

Really? One numbs at such absence of self-reflection: the writers simply don’t listen carefully to what they are saying between the words. Had they configured the population in a different way, they might have toned down the damning that seeps through their lines.

I am not offering another “usual” today. I am not a siren of ominous effects. Rather, I want to detail a different set of populations that were with us in that 1970 classroom, are with us more now (and even increasing in the future), and that require analyses and guidance in a key other than that offered by the storm literature. 

We are going to use languages, not race or family income, as a template. And we’re not assuming that U.S. resident students from non-English-dominant backgrounds are de facto remedial and bound for failure. In fact, quite the reverse. 

But that depends on a variety of factors, most of which the research, policy and pundit establishment in higher education has not bothered to map. We will know better what to do if we know more about the experiences and conditions through which these distinct populations cross the line between fluency in conversational English and the literacy constitutive to the reading and writing of English.

“Ways” and “extent,” in turn, depend on the language at issue, and the intensity of language conditioning, environment and maintenance. The Chinese guys at CCNY in 1970 didn’t know from diacritics; the Polish girls were loaded with prepositions. Such belated knowledge is a metaphor that opens a key door to assist advisers and faculty naifs such as I once was. If I had known better and more about my students’ language crossings, I could have done better by them.

This nation of immigrants enfolds roughly 350 languages spoken by 60.5 million people.   Among those whose dominant language is other than English, we know native speakers of Spanish are the largest group (37.5 million), with recent Spanish-speaking immigrants more likely to be monolingual Spanish than those long-established in the U.S., e.g., from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, in the Southwest, descendants of the conquistadores who have been here since the 16th century. 

But in addition to Spanish, over 1 million U.S. residents speak each of the following languages (in order of frequency): Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French (not Creole, but including immigrants from Francophone West Africa, who may also speak a native African language, e.g. from Senegal, Waloof), Korean, and German. Nearly 1 million speak either Arabic or Russian. In addition, we have between 500,000 and 900,000 speaking (in order) Creole French, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, and Polish, and notable (though smaller) recent immigrant groups coming initially as refugees, speaking Hmong, Serbo-Croatian, Laotian, Cambodian, Farsi, and Somali.  Hardly “immigrant,” but notable, are the 169,000 speakers of Navajo, the largest home language group by far among Native Americans.

More important for our purposes than the number of speakers is the proportion of each language group that the American Community Survey (ACS) has determined as not speaking English at all or not speaking English well.  For the record, the top 10 ratios, by native language, are:

Vietnamese 33.1%
Chinese 29.6
Cambodian 29.5
Korean 28.4
Laotian 27.0
Spanish 25.9
Armenian 24.1
Russian 22.1
Thai 21.7
Hmong 21.1

Seven of these are Asian languages, and, with the exception of Vietnamese and Spanish, all use scripts other than the Roman alphabet of English (I am including Hmong among these, even though some contend that, historically, there was no written language that could be called “Hmong”). Putting these together with 2010 Census data, that means there are 9.7 million native speakers of Spanish and 2.1 million native speakers of the other 9 languages all living in the United States and not speaking English.  The ACS does not provide data on reading or writing English, but one can reasonably assume that the list of 20-plus-percent proportion of limited-English-language populations, by native language, would be a lot longer and more diverse if ACS included orthographic considerations in reading and writing.  Literacy, to repeat, is distinct from audio/lingual fluency. We are thinking of the children in these groups and of these groups, and of the magnitude and linguistic elements of generational literacy shift in each language group.

The overall data necessary to estimate what higher education is seeing and will see are fragmented and difficult. The oldest rigorous data on the proportion of non-English dominant speakers in the 12th grade and teetering on entrance to higher education are from the National Center for Education Statistics’ High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort longitudinal study: 5 percent.  But a body of 12th-graders does not capture what higher education will eventually count, so we need some further and more contemporary guidance. The children of current non-English dominant households entered the U.S. at different stages of life (including being born in the U.S.), entered school at different times, and had to learn English as a fulcrum of their schooling.  When they arrive in higher education, then, they are not wholly bereft of the world’s default second language. The basic figures from the NCES Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study of 2003-2009, which covers entering students of all ages, excluding foreign students in the U.S. on visas, are as follows:

                                                                                             

  Children of Immigrants English Not Primary Language
All entering students 23%  12%
Entering 4-year  20 10
Entering 2-year 24 12
Entering for-profits 29 15

Dividing these groups by age at entrance to higher education (the most significant demographic variable in the standard universe of such variables) does not change these proportions much at all.  The dividing age year used was 20. And since the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition tells us that the number of English language learners enrolled in ELL courses in pre-collegiate education was 5.3 million in 2005-6 (and 5.3 million does not account for all second language students), the challenge to higher education to mark the extent of their participation and state of their English language use eight years later is even greater than what these data -- reflecting a considerable increase of the proportion of non-English dominant students since the 5 percent of the High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort as seniors in 1982 -- say of 2003.

These are not small proportions of the entering postsecondary population, and their progress and degree completion rates (lower than those of native speakers of English by roughly 6 percent) may well be influenced by their language status and various aspects of their language histories.  Languages obviously differ, and differ in terms of their similarities to English, in terms of morphology, orthography, and phonology.  Non-English-speaking environments also differ in terms of saturation of second language media, Internet use by immigrants, and concentrations of commerce serving local populations. Too, language maintenance traditions vary for each of these immigrant groups.  We have a history of language maintenance dating to German-speaking immigrants in the Midwest in the mid-19th century.  Unless countries are officially bilingual or trilingual (Canada, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Switzerland, for noted examples in the West), you don’t see much formal language maintenance elsewhere. How much we still practice, and in what forms, is something our current second language students in higher education will tell us if and when we get to interview them with a consortium of teams advised by second language acquisition experts (see below).

Most importantly, some immigrant cultures and their languages are concentrated in very specific regions of the United States. Institutions of higher education that serve these geographic areas are thus more likely than others to witness enrollments of specific language background groups.  For example, the greater San Francisco area is more likely to provide for students from Tagalog-speaking backgrounds; greater Minneapolis-St. Paul for Somali and Hmong speakers; San Jose and Houston for Vietnamese; greater Miami for Luzo-Portuguese (Brazilian); the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles and Flushing in Queens for two very different socioeconomic groups of Chinese; Russians in Brooklyn; Wayne County in Michigan for Arabic speakers; and while they are located everywhere, particularly concentrated populations of Spanish speakers in South Texas and the Central Valley of California.

Why is this geo-demography important?  Because when you get in your car to gather information that just might help folks get further down the education thruway, it helps to know precisely where you’re going.

In this case, I propose, we can find captured populations among students from specific second language backgrounds who are recent enrollees in colleges and community colleges in the geo-demographic target areas, and ask them a series of questions on family language background and use, and on their own experiences moving through the chain from language 1 to language 2. One needs college partners in those areas, of course, both to identify the students of interest and to urge them to take an online survey consuming no more than 30 minutes.  Do we know whether sufficient numbers of students can be found to answer our questions and begin to provide guidance?  No, but our chances are better with geo-demographic targeting.   

I’ve got a survey for first- and second-year college students ready to roll to a second language acquisition review panel.  It seeks to document features and dominances of language use in the student’s household, peer groups, and work environments, the student’s language transition experiences in high school and early college months, first language maintenance, and focuses on areas of linguistic friction between first language and English.

What we have learned from the self-assessment forms of Europass (designed to enhance cross-border mobility in the labor market) is that voluntary respondents (and there have been about 600,000 in Europe to date who have completed “language passports”) are very honest and forthcoming about what they can do and how well in languages other than that from which they emerged, in what environments they learned second and third languages, and how. 

We are less interested in language 1 to language 2 issues such as transfer, semantic judgments, code switching, and speech registers since we would not be asking questions on these well-trod paths of second language acquisition research. 

At a time when immigration policy is on the front desks of legislators, we are more interested in story lines, promising and limiting, and commonalities as well as differences by language group.  The end product would be a portrait that every institution serving similar students can use, for the benefit of future students, and not merely in “Open Enrollment English” classes, either.  Those students, as I learned in 1970, are not remedial.

Clifford Adelman is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

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