Teachers In Training

Akron - Ohio





Foreign Languages in the United States in the secondary education


The United States is a big country, where the differences are huge from one place to another, from schools with immersion programs from the first year of schooling to schools with no foreign languages at all until the end of high school, especially in rural areas. Moreover, the United States is a federal country, where a lot of policies, including education, are decided and implemented at the local level. The following article will mostly discuss the common situation encountered in the United States in the secondary education.

Following a period of steady decline from the late 1960s through the mid to late 1970s, foreign language study overall in the United States has been rising for the past fifteen to twenty years. The recommendations of President Carter's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies (Strength through Wisdom, 1979) and numerous subsequent education reports, like A Nation at Risk [1], 1983, which focused on political and economic considerations, on early learning of foreign language (in elementary school) continuing throughout a student's schooling, as well as the restoration of college foreign language requirements, were important factors in the renaissance of language study generally. Despite this improvement, foreign language education is still a concern in the United States, underlined by the latest national reports.

A study of nineteen countries on six continents completed by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) in 2000 identified a number of contrasts between U.S. programs and those elsewhere [2]. One of the major contrasts concerned the age at which the students are starting to learn foreign languages: this study underlined that in the United States "the majority of students who study a foreign language do not start before age 14." Most American students begin a foreign language program in high school. Most foreign language programs in public middle schools have been canceled due to financial funding.

Another important issue, linked to the problem of funding, concerns the status of foreign languages in the curriculum. The CAL study underlines the fact that another contrast with the United Sates is the presence of strong language policy in many of the surveyed countries. Such policies include compulsory foreign language education, a national curriculum or curriculum framework, and designated amounts of time required for foreign language instruction. In many of the countries surveyed, foreign languages are considered to be core subjects, while foreign languages are mostly considered as elective subjects and not core subjects in K-12 schools. One of the consequences is that foreign languages are not a priority for the funding and time available during the school day. In Ohio high schools for example, foreign language is treated as a fine art such as drama, newspaper/journalism etc. So it is possible to never take foreign language. In middle schools, there is very limited time available for electives, and so long as foreign language classes are viewed as electives, they are often in competition with such attractive options as music, art, and applied arts. In France, country which is not at all considered as a model in Europe for its foreign language education, learning two foreign languages is compulsory and part of the core subjects and begins at least at the beginning of middle school but more commonly now in elementary school.

Spanish and French are usually the two languages offered [3]. These are two European languages, including one spoken in most Central and South America and more and more often in the United States. Most languages have been cut out of high school due to financial funding in public schools. Very few high schools offer German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Russian. According to an ACTFL [4] survey, using public schools figures only, of all students enrolled in foreign language classes, grades 7-12, in fall 1994, 3.5% were studying Latin [5], following German with 6.1%, French with 22.3%, and Spanish with 64.5%. It is very rare that a student will learn a second foreign language in high school. If the student does change its language choice it is usually due to the fact that he either fails its first language class or does not like the teacher.

Problems of funding and interest in foreign language are important issues. However, the situation seems to improve to some extent. According to a 2003 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) [6], trends in course taking between 1982 and 2000 indicate that the proportions of students completing advanced academic courses in foreign languages are increasing. Private school graduates in 2000 were more likely than public school graduates to have completed advanced foreign language courses. The percentage of high school graduates who had completed advanced foreign language courses (year 3 or higher) was greater in 2000 than in 1982. In 1982, 15 percent of graduates had completed some advanced foreign language study; by 2000, this percentage had doubled to 30 percent. In addition, over this period, the percentage of graduates who had completed no foreign language study decreased markedly (from 46 to 17 percent). Yet, in 2000, roughly half of all graduates had completed only low academic levels of foreign language study (year 2 or lower), 9 percent completed no foreign language course, while 5 percent had completed AP (Advanced Placement) courses [7].

Most students study a foreign language for two years only in high school. For example, the class size of a French I class is about 23 students. The class size for a typical French IV language class is 8-12 students. As a matter of fact, students are usually required to take two years of the same foreign language to graduate from their high school, but it varies from school district to school district and state to state. However, in order to receive an honors diploma from high school, students must have more years of foreign language (it can be either three years of one foreign language or two years each of two foreign languages, also depending on the high school and on the school district, as usual in the United States). Students who plan on going to college usually take 3-4 years of a foreign language, because most colleges require at least two years of foreign language for admission to any program. In addition, foreign language students can also benefit from travel programs offered by many schools, often during spring or summer breaks for about 10 days. The truth of the matter is that most students take a foreign language in the United States because they have to, in order to graduate from high school and/or get into college. Most of them don't ever believe they will use it for a future job. Most students choose one particular language because of an interest in a particular culture.

The newest federal program concerning foreign languages, President Bush's National Security Language Initiative (NSLI), addresses the need for improving teaching or learning foreign languages, but focuses only on "critical" foreign languages. On January 5th, 2006, President Bush launched this "plan to further strengthen national security and prosperity in the 21st century through education, especially in developing foreign language skills. The NSLI will dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi, and others through new and expanded programs from kindergarten through university and into the workforce. The President will request $114 million in FY07 [8] to fund this effort." [9] The first goal of this program is to increase the security of the United States after 9-11. The second one is to improve its efficiency abroad, in foreign politics and in business, especially in "critical regions". This program recognizes that communicating in other languages is a challenge for which Americans are unprepared [10]. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, making comments on this Initiative in a speech at a summit of college presidents, expressed her concern that many high school students don't take any foreign language, underlying the fact that such classes are required in places like China and even Kazakhstan. "To address these needs, under the direction of the President, the Secretaries of State, Education and Defense and the Director of National Intelligence have developed a comprehensive national plan to expand U.S. foreign language education beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout formal schooling and into the workforce, with new programs and resources." [11] But those efforts won't be made only by and for the Department of Education and will focus only on some - "critical" - languages, in order to address a political issue.

Teachers continue to be in short supply at all levels. Finally, the fundamental challenge is: claiming a secure place in the school day and in the K-12 curriculum for foreign language instruction in the United States.

Annexes: Foreign language coursetaking and foreign language levels in U.S. high school

Student Characteristics in English and Foreign Language Coursetaking

Table 25-2 Percentage distribution of 2000 high school graduates according to the highest level of foreign language completed, by student and school characteristics: 1999-2000

1 These figures include only students who studied French, German, Latin, or Spanish because these are the only foreign languages commonly offered in high schools for 4 years or more. Some students in each category also studied more than one foreign language. Only data on the foreign language they studied most are presented.

2 American Indian includes Alaska Native, Black includes African American, Pacific Islander includes Native Hawaiian, and Hispanic includes Latino. Race categories exclude Hispanic origin unless specified. 3To meet the requirements of the Core curriculum, students must complete at least 4 years of English and 3 years each of mathematics, science, and social studies.

NOTE: The distribution of graduates among the various levels of foreign language courses was determined by the level of the most academically advanced course they had completed. Graduates who had completed courses in different languages were counted according to the highest level course completed. Graduates may have completed advanced levels of courses without having taken courses at lower levels. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, NCES, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2000 High School Transcript Study (HSTS).


By Mélanie



Découvrir l'Est américain

Comprendre le système éducatif américain

Enseigner l'Histoire dans l'Ohio