The Politics of Foreign Language Education

Illustration by Kim Rosen

“Plastics” was the classic, one-word, unsolicited career advice offered to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Fast-forward several decades, and that word today could well be “Mandarin.”

We’re bombarded almost daily with references to the economic rise of China.

  • The White House hosts a state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, aka, “America’s banker.”
  • Chinese automaker Chang’an Auto has entered the U.S. market and is bringing jobs to suburban Detroit.

There may be no classroom subject more affected by the vagaries of current affairs than the study of foreign language. Choices and offerings are influenced by trends in national security, global economics, and prevailing academic beliefs, says Emily Spinelli, Ph.D., executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese in Walled Lake.

Over time, she says, Latin, the standard for a classical education, gave way to modern European languages during World Wars I and II. Russian became a must-learn during the Cold War. And Japanese, popular in the 1990s thanks to that country’s then-surging economy, has been surpassed by Chinese study, as economic fortunes shift.

Among entering college freshmen taking Advance Placement (AP) exams, Mandarin Chinese is catching up to German, the College Board reports. Whatever the lingua franca du jour, many educators just urge: learn a language — any language. But that’s been a perennial tough sell in a country comfortably buffered on two sides by oceans and on the third by another primarily English-speaking nation.


There’s no doubt that daily discourse is challenging enough in our native English. Consider the recent tragedy-driven push for kinder, gentler public discussion. Then there’s the film The King’s Speech, which highlights the importance — and challenges — of oral communication. Given our struggles to converse in our mother tongue, why complicate things by learning another language — especially when ours is the go-to language of the world?

The reasons are plenty and well documented and timely in Michigan, where the class of 2016 (today’s seventh-graders) will be required to take two years of a “world” language to earn a high-school diploma.

That makes this a ripe time to consider why, what, and how to study a “world” language.

Why study? To participate in international business, to broaden cultural understanding, to travel for pleasure, and to exercise our brains. A second language, proponents and researchers say, boosts conceptual powers.
“Experiments have shown, for example, that foreign-language study increases brain density in the left inferior parietal cortex,” Catherine Porter, former president of the Modern Language Association, wrote last year in a published essay, “English is Not Enough.” She added: “Virtually all ‘brain fitness’ experts include foreign-language study among the activities that may help delay the onset of dementia.”

What to study? In most countries, studying English is a no-brainer. So how should American students, who speak the world’s premier language, decide what to tackle when the options are so vast?

“We’d like to see elementary schools start with any language, and if the students want to switch to Hindi or Farsi in college, that’s good,” says Marty Abbott, Director of Education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.


Jen Weisbrodt, a Spanish teacher at Grosse Pointe North High School in Grosse Pointe Woods, says, “Students need to pick a language they are passionate about. Learning a language is a long process, and without passion it can be a long road.” Some of her Spanish students chose the language, she says, because they thought it was the easiest to learn. Others thought it would help with future employment. What stimulates them, she says, is when they experience the language in a real setting — in Detroit’s Mexicantown, for example. “I love seeing the excitement in my students’ eyes when they return to tell me that they ordered for their family in a restaurant or eavesdropped on a conversation in the next booth,” she says.

How to study? A younger start is generally better. And at least four years of study is better than two. But that wisdom isn’t reflected in elementary curriculum in typical American schools. “The percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign-language instruction decreased significantly from 1997 to 2008,” the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) reported in December 2010. “The decline at the elementary level occurred mainly in public elementary schools; the percentage of private elementary schools teaching languages remained about the same,” the CAL report found. “The percentage of high schools teaching foreign languages stayed relatively steady at about 91 percent.”

Schools that offer the International Baccalaureate (I.B.) degree mandate study of a non-native language. “They require four years [because] I.B. uses language fluency, rather than language proficiency, as a measure,” says Rebecca Riggs, a Spanish teacher at the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills. “I.B. wants the student to be as close to native speaking as possible.”

She says her students’ parents see the value of learning another language — after the fact. “I can’t tell you how many parents say, ‘I wish I’d kept up with my language,’ ” Riggs says. “I say, ‘study along with them.’ ” Those parents and other adults often come to the same conclusion when they’re confronted with the practical need in their own careers.

“More and more people are doing business with overseas companies and, even if they aren’t traveling there, in their conversations they want to show that they’re making an effort to speak the language,” says Gina Gramatis, director of training and development for Illinois-based ELT (Executive Language Training), which offers instruction to corporate executives and other professionals.
Language-training requests tend to vary by career type, Gramatis says. She offers this typical breakdown by sector:

Banking and finance: European languages, Russian, and Arabic (the latter mostly because of the boom in Dubai).

Manufacturing: Eastern European, Russian, and Chinese. “There’s also been a significant rise in requests for Portuguese because of things happening in Brazil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and business opportunities due to their growing economy,” Gramatis says.

On the whole, she adds, French and German remain strong. They are the two largest markets in Europe, and their economies are quickly recovering. “We don’t do a lot with Japanese,” she says. “Mandarin is very strong.”

ELT’s adult students in metro Detroit and elsewhere usually study in their own corporate setting during twice weekly, two-hour sessions for a year. Not surprisingly, Gramatis says, “If people have previously learned a second language, it’s much easier to pick up a third.”

Yet another reason to start early.