While foreign languages are critical to U.S. diplomacy and national security, fewer U.S. college students are learning a second language, says a new report.
Americans are failing to learn other languages, says the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) report, “State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait,” including college students.
More employers seek workers with varied language skills in markets of trading partners and in geopolitical regions in which diplomacy is critical, the report said.
But the study found that since the early 1990s, the number of students earning degrees in other European languages has fallen by more than a third, the report says. And while the study of African, Asian, and the Middle East languages has grown substantially over the same time, the number of degrees awarded in that field have not reached the same levels.
Spanish has been the most popular European or romance language to study. (Romance languages descend from Latin, such as French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.) While the number of students earning degrees in Spanish increased from nearly 3,500 in 1987 to a peak of 9,357 in 2010, it fell to 8,053 degrees in 2014.
The U.S. government provides scholarships for students to study those languages deemed “critical” for national security. Current events tend to drive interest in those languages, such as study in Arabic increasing after September 11, 2001. Conversely, Russian-language studies decreased after the Berlin Wall fell in the late 1980s.
Likewise, the study of languages considered of “significant strategic interest to the United States,” include Hindi, Indonesian and Swahili, and “reflect a desire for stronger ties with important emerging regions around the world,” the reports states.
For example, the U.S. Department of State grants fellowships to high-school and college students, all expenses paid. The State Department’s National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) and Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) programs fund more than 1,000 students to learn critical languages overseas each year.
Some participants are starting a new language without prior study. Others have some language skills in that language. Some students have never traveled outside the U.S. They come from broad socioeconomic backgrounds.
Also, students can learn critical languages through university classwork and study abroad. For example, the Language Flagship model prepares students for proficiency in speaking, reading, and listening through intensive training.
The report points out that employers seek employees with language skills.
“One in five job postings from some of New Jersey’s largest employers (including Bank of America, H&R Block, State Farm Insurance Companies, and Crossmark, Inc.) sought bilingual employees,” the report says. Other studies show that “half of all employers in northern Illinois plan to hire more bilingual or multilingual college graduates within five years.”
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