Lack of foreign language skills, education called 'a national disgrace'


The state of foreign language education in the United States remains abysmal, and is endangering the federal government’s ability to operate in a multinational world, a panel of senior government officials testified today.

Only 30 percent of American high school students and 8 percent of post-high school students are enrolled in a foreign language today, Eduardo Ochoa, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for postsecondary eduction, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce.

And foreign language education is getting worse, Ochoa said. In the 1960s, 17 percent of post-high school students were enrolled in a foreign language.

When you look at less-commonly taught languages — such as Dari and Pashto, which are the two major languages spoken in Afghanistan — the numbers grow even more dim. Only 1 percent of post-high school students are learning such rare languages.

Glen Nordin, who is the principal foreign language advisor for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, is especially frustrated that many government leaders are seemingly unaware of the gaps in their agencies’ foreign language capabilities — and how those holes are affecting their missions.

“The biggest difficulty we face … is that our leadership is as unaware of the needs for languages within their organizations as the general populace is failing to be aware of the needs for languages in their community,” Nordin said. “It is a national disgrace in that respect, and it’s that lack of knowledge that we need to correct. We need to find a way to communicate to our people just how important that interpreter/translator at the social services office is to a community’s well-being.”

And Tracey North, the deputy assistant director of the FBI’s intelligence directorate, pointed out that we don’t know what will be the government’s most pressing foreign language need 20 years down the line, which makes the shallow state of foreign language education even more frightening.

Her comments were a good reminder of how quickly the world — and the government’s critical skill needs — can change. After all, in 1981, the Cold War was still on and the CIA’s experts were still largely focused on translating Russian. Few would have predicted that two decades later, that focus would suddenly switch to Dari and Pashto.


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  1. Tens of millions of US citizens can’t speak English to the extent that nearly every time an Englsh speaker makes a phone call, we have to wait through a listing of foreign language options. Others speak it so poorly that public commerce can be extremely annoying. This is a disgrace in a nation where 90 percent of the population speaks english as their primary language. If you want to be a diplomat or international specialist, then learn different languages. If the FBI needs translaters, they can readily find them. Otherwise, the Education department’s statement is nonsense. English should be made the official language of the US.

  2. An English only metality is not only short-minded, it is proving to make the work of our government very difficult. Leaders of so many governmental agencies including department of state, commerce, justice, and homeland security all constantly report major needs for language speakers and global citizens. There aren’t enough translators, and mor importantly, people with cultural competence to complete the work needed.
    In additon, the research is imperical that learning languages not only gives you improved cognitive skills in non-linguisstic areas, it emperically makes you better speakers of your native tongue.

  3. Former Linguistics Student on

    The rest of the world DOES speak English. That in itself has been a disincentive in this country to learn other languages. Also the lack of attention to full language study in general (including English), in favor of graphical and shorthand substitutes brought about in the digital age, has shifted the paradigm in communications modes.

  4. norm from ga on

    “…(W)e don’t know what will be the government’s most pressing foreign language need 20 years down the line, which makes the shallow state of foreign language education even more frightening…”

    DUH! Then which language should we be teaching today to meet tomorrow’s needs, Mr Deputy Assistant Director?

    Yeah, in the 60s we were told to take Russian or German if we were going into the technologies, French if we were going into the Foreign Service, Spanish if going into the social services, and Latin if we wanted to do well on the vocabulary portion of the SATs.

    Now we tell our kids to take Spanish if they are going to work for WalMart, or pick produce, some form of Chinese to get a factory job, or Dari or Pashto if they want to get shot at.

  5. The elite scholars grab all the teaching opportunities and block any average foreign language instructors or ordinary people with foreign language skills from contributing. They insist on only employing the “best and brightest.” This results in only a handful of students mastering the often-unused, high-brow foreign grammer and little else.

    Loads of people with good skills who could vastly increase the pool of potential foreign language students are screened out by an overly restrictive process of excellence. This insistence that only the very best should be imparting knowledge is fundamentally wrong and undermines our national security.

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