'But Where Does That Leave French?'

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. Koïchiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO, has said: “Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context.” To achieve these goals, cultures and languages can and should play a central role at all levels of education.

May 5, 2008

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages. Koïchiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO, has said: “Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals and to their peaceful coexistence. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and the local context.” To achieve these goals, cultures and languages can and should play a central role at all levels of education. The United States, in particular, must abandon its exclusive short-range, 9/11-sparked, tactical emphasis on just-in-time, emergency-responsive study of specific languages to meet economic challenges and security crises. In its place, the U.S. needs to establish a longer-range strategic emphasis on the study of cultures, and widespread educational use of languages, to prevent such crises from occurring in the first place.

How do we achieve these goals? Should we restore and expand upon the pattern of high school and college language instruction that existed in my youth, when four times as many college students studied “foreign languages”? Well, yes, but the world has changed since then. The world’s children, including children in the U.S., need higher levels of competency and competency in a larger number of “world languages” than have ever appeared in any country’s standard curriculum.

The present essay lays out a position to which I have gradually and grudgingly been arriving over my nearly 50-year career as a student and teacher of languages and cultures. I was spurred to express this position publicly by recent global and national initiatives in the area of language education but also by an e-mail I received nearly a year ago:

I teach French, Spanish, and an Intro to World Languages class at a public middle school in a rural community in Virginia. I am eager to understand the current Foreign Language trends in the U.S. and am puzzled by the decreasing enrollment in specifically French classes. I am trying to promote the necessity of French as an essential international language, but is my thinking back in the dark ages?

I understand the rise of Spanish in light of the USA's changing demographics, and the wave of Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese with regard to global commerce and homeland security, BUT WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE FRENCH? Do you believe the need for French in the American classroom will continue to decline and become obsolete?

What follows is my latest, fullest response to this question, which I have been pondering ever since.

French was the first language I studied and the one I studied to the highest level academically. My Francophile father spent a year in Tours after he retired to enhance his fluency in the language; my mother chose French to fulfill her doctoral-level language requirement; my sister majored in French; and I have cited and written about French scholarship in my publications as an academic linguist. Despite having studied a half dozen other languages since, and lived for nearly a year and half in Mexico using Spanish (and Yucatec Maya) daily, plus another year using Romanian in Bucharest, French is still the language other than English in which I am the most literate, however outdated and rusty my knowledge.

Despite this deep-seated allegiance, I do regretfully conclude that the recent and projected continuing decline of French as one of the most widely studied languages in the U.S. is both inevitable and appropriate. My late father would be distressed to hear me say this, but, as director of international admissions at the University of Michigan in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he probably saw it coming himself.

Last November’s Modern Language Association enrollment update provides an authoritative overview of where languages currently stand in U.S. higher education. Although college modern-language course enrollments as a proportion of total enrollments are still little better than half of what they were in the 1960’s (8.6 percent in 2006 compared with 16.5 in 1965), they have grown steadily along with college enrollments overall during the last decade (from 7.7 percent to 8.6), and world language demographics and increased global awareness have shifted college-level language enrollments heavily away from the previous near-monopoly of the Big Three of previous generations (French, German, Spanish). Although Spanish increased its share from 32 to 52 percent. French went from 34 percent to 13 percent, while German dropped from 19 to 6 percent.

In the last near-decade (1998-2006), although the Big Three shared in the overall growth in language enrollments, their shares continued to decrease: Spanish slipped from 55.0 to 52.2 (a 5 percent decrease), French from 16.7 to 13.1 (a 22 percent decrease), and German from 7.5 to 6.0 (a 20 percent decrease). Sizeable increases, on the other hand, were experienced by Italian (from 4.1 to 5.0, a 23 percent increase), Japanese (from 3.6 to 4.2, a 17 percent increase), Chinese (from 2.4 to 3.3, a 38 percent increase), Arabic (from 0.5 to 1.5, a 200 percent increase), and “Other languages” (from 1.5 to 2.1, a 40 percent increase). The world’s languages still lag behind the Big Three, but they are gradually supplanting them in the postsecondary enrollments.

These shifts in student demand will almost certainly produce major shifts in the allocation of resources for the study of specific languages in the coming years. Indeed, some institutions have already experienced a loss of “critical mass” in enrollment for German. Most recently the University of Southern California has announced the elimination of its department of German, which lost its doctoral program a decade ago and in 2008 has only 10 undergraduate majors and 10 minors taught by three tenured faculty and three full-time adjuncts.

We can expect such dislocations to increase in the coming years as the more populous of the world’s languages take their place in the college curriculum, but the prospects for achieving college-level proficiency in any languages will remain small in the absence of the development of language proficiency in secondary school. In light of these considerations, the most desirable outcome of the rise in the diversity and popularity of world languages at the college level would include two major changes in elementary and secondary education and set the stage for a new level of importance for languages in all fields of postsecondary education.

The first K-12 change would be a widespread initiative to mandate the mastery of English and a language other than English (LOTE), in K-6 education, and the continued meaningful use of that LOTE throughout the 7-12 curriculum. Spanish is the obvious first choice of LOTE for most schools because the U.S. is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Languages other than Spanish (LOTS) would present themselves in many locales and neighborhoods: French in upstate New York, Polish in near-north Chicago, Mandarin in San Francisco’s Chinatown, etc.

To get an idea of how numerous such locally-significant languages might be nationwide, visit the Modern Language Association Language Map Data Center. Based on official 2000 and 2006 Census figures, this site provides information regarding the numbers of speakers of literally scores of languages from location to location across the U.S.

Regardless of the choice of language, high school students in the U.S. -- or college-bound students, at any rate -- ought to spend at least half an academic year in a school where a LOTE is the primary language of instruction. In the case of Spanish, the default K-12 LOTE, this study abroad might best occur in Latin America. Exchange programs for both students and teachers could make this a win-win bilingual educational effort for our Latin American neighbors and, for LOTS, visitors from other nations. Family-to-family home-stay exchanges could bring the Americas and the world together in a very intimate and mutually rewarding, to say nothing of cost-saving, way.

The second desirable change in K-12 education would occur in grade seven. Having become functionally bilingual in English and Spanish (or some other language) by the end of elementary school, children should be encouraged and college-bound students required (and find it relatively easy) to begin study of a third language. The available choices would rightly vary in accordance with personal, local, regional, national, and global needs, resources, and opportunities. The goal would be to have a large majority of high school graduates functioning at a high level of literacy in English and another language (typically Spanish) and at an intermediate level in a third language.

On this plan, which draws major inspiration from a 1996 proposal for education in France by Claude Hagège, individual learners in college and the workplace would bring additional languages into their repertoires as a function of chosen career paths and intellectual interests. Equally affected by this obviously audacious plan, college and university curricula would of course need to include a much wider range of course work in world languages and cultures.

To reach the full range of fields of study, colleges would also need to employ the proven methods developed by Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) practitioners to enable students to acquire and make ubiquitous meaningful use of their multilingual skills and international knowledge. Examples of CLAC methods include non-language courses taught in a LOTE, add-on LOTE “trailers” or course modules, and study groups in which students in an otherwise English-only course pursue substitute assignments employing LOTE materials (see the CLAC Consortium Web site for details).

To encourage multilingual educational initiatives of the above sorts, local, state, and federal agencies, as well as employers of all kinds, could offer incentives and rewards for the study and meaningful curricular use of high-need languages at all educational levels in all fields of study and in all lines of work in the global economy.

So where does that leave French? Clearly French would survive the above-described process, but with only a fraction of its current share of total language-learning enrollments, and with a much broader coverage of the many dialects, postcolonial cultural traditions, and socioeconomic circumstances that exist in 21st century Francophonie. The French-speaking world uses not only European French but also the Frenches of the Canadian Québecois and of the numerous former French colonies in Africa and on many islands around the world. Spanish, though instructors also need to recognize Spanish dialect diversity, is probably the only one of the Big Three that will remain in the top 10 in U.S. education by the end of the 21st century. Likely members by then include Arabic, Bengali, Hindi/Urdu, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Turkish.

Whatever our language choices and their respective global “ranking”, we can hope that a large number of languages find their way into our K-21 curricula (and lifelong-learning options) in response to the twin forces of economic globalization and cultural internationalization.

Is the above merely the hope-induced pipe dream of an ivory-tower academic out of touch with political and educational realities? I hope not. Playing to the catchwords of the day, I can cite the priorities of global commerce (U.S. economic competitiveness) and homeland security (monitoring terrorist communications and communicating with non-English-speaking allies and enemies) in support of the above initiatives. Especially at the federal level, though states and municipalities have also expressed support for greater language study in our post-9/11 era, we find many examples of urgent calls for enhanced linguistic competency in the service of these priorities.

In June 2004 the Department of Defense, with cooperation from the Departments of State and Education, sponsored the first-ever National Language Policy Conference. Representatives of government at all levels, industry, and K-16 academe endeavored to define the full range of needs and describe the resources necessary to meet our society’s needs for greater intercultural and global knowledge and skills, with a focus on the expansion of linguistic competencies. This proved to be but the first in a number of federal, state, and local initiatives, running from the establishment of tens of two-way immersion elementary schools, mostly in English and Spanish, to the recent Senator Paul Simon Foundation legislation, aimed to increase the number of college students studying abroad by a factor of four in the next 10 years.

Encouraging widespread two-way bilingual K-12 education, in which native speakers of English and other languages learn to use each other’s languages, and vastly expanding the range of languages taught in U.S. schools and colleges may sound preposterous in the face of popular negativism about increased immigration and the alleged (and largely imaginary) refusal of immigrants to learn English (when they are in fact giving up their native languages at least as quickly as previous generations of immigrants). However, surveys of college-bound high school students and their parents have increasingly revealed their desire that a college education include language study and time abroad in order for graduates to compete effectively in the global economy.

The recently released UCLA Higher Education Research Institute Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey data show yet a further increase in college freshman interest in learning about other world cultures, rising from 43.2 percent in 2002 to 52.3 percent in 2007. College students come desirous but ill-prepared to study languages and cultures but find the current college curriculum unresponsive to, and even incompatible with, their needs.

In short, both the population at large and leadership in virtually all arenas have come to realize that the solution to global problems, including the establishment of a sustainable "new world order" (do you remember that benign vision, so quickly displaced by a New American Imperium?) in which all the world's peoples can live in peace and attain prosperity, depends upon increases in international understanding and coöperation of a sort that only widespread multilingualism and intercultural interaction can produce.

Call it public diplomacy or global competency or inclusive humanism; our goal should be to make everyone in the world safer, healthier, and better educated about each other’s shared values, diverse lifeways, and unique cultural achievements. We have had enough of xenophobic fear-mongering, hypocritical ethnocentrism, and Doomsday rhetoric. If the worst scenarios do indeed come to pass, it will not be because they are unavoidable but because we have diverted too many of our resources into preparing for those pessimistic scenarios and too few into warding them off.

A competitive, power-driven view of the world's future becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that, in the end, no one can survive. A cooperative, posterity-driven view of the future includes the ubiquitous study of world cultures and languages, and use of this acquired knowledge and skill to build international bridges and address global problems. To paraphrase an aphorism about education penned in 1920 by H.G. Wells, human history has become more and more a race between catastrophe and international education.


H. Stephen Straight is professor of anthropology and of linguistics, and vice provost for undergraduate education and international affairs, at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is a member of the executive committee of the Association of International Education Administrators.


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