Congress Should Stop Cutting Education: Foreign Language Programs Matter

Originally published on the Huffington Post on March 2.

I’m a working mother of two and I’m sick and tired of the U.S. Congress cutting programs that help make our kids more competitive.

The global marketplace is huge. Dynamic. And yes, even a bit scary because it’s different. But none of this excuses the U.S. Members of Congress if they vote on cuts to the federal budget that will eliminate the only federal funding for foreign language and culture education for K-12.

The amount is $25 million – a drop in the bucket comparable to the equivalent cost of just one nuclear armed submarine – yet the Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) in the Department of Education budget is the only seed money for the only research and development in the entire K-12 field of education in the United States.

Our college graduates need these skills to succeed today in the global marketplace; only two-thirds of 2010 graduates have “college labor market jobs”, i.e., professional jobs in their field, not bartending or landscaping – while growth in China continues at a strong clip with only 4% unemployment across the board.  Other developing nations are on a similar economic rebound. Yet increasingly, if an American wants to work in China, she better speak Mandarin. The same is true throughout much of Latin America with Spanish and will soon be true for Portugese in Brazil.

Why do members of Congress continue to be penny wise and pound foolish (like my mother-in-law was fond of saying)?

They know states can’t pick up the tab; most are broke or nearing bankruptcy.  Unlike language arts, math, science and even music and art, funding for foreign language research and development is almost nonexistent in local districts and states.

In my search, I couldn’t find out how many members of Congress are bilingual.  But I’ve got to believe it’s higher than the national statistic of 9%.  More people in the world are bilingual than monolingual – except in the United States.  Something’s wrong with this picture.

Most of our fearless leaders don’t seem to understand that in order for American children to have a chance of leading a comparably comfortable existence that Members of Congress do today, they will need second language skills to keep pace with globalization and the competition rising from the super economies of China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Russia.  Our kids must learn cross-cultural skills, and they must understand foreign currencies, history, politics and religion.  If not in our public schools, then where?  When?  We comfort ourselves with the unrealistic expectation that students will learn in college. But that’s unlikely to happen due to the increased difficulty in language learning as we get older.  Why?

Because studies show that language learning comes more easily to those whose brains are still in the development phase — up until roughly 13 or 14 years of age – which is usually about the time when we start language programs in high school.  We are inhibiting bilingualism in future adults. Arguably, bold and innovative new methods of teaching foreign language are needed now more than ever – and instituted in schools as early as kindergarten.

I’ve said this before but I’m going to say it again: The stakes for our children are high, and rising. Americans must fight for the need to keep foreign language in the budget as a critical component to our children’s success. Knowledge of and appreciation for another language and culture will help our children grow up ready for a complex and multi-cultural global economy. If we are to continue to prosper as a country, our children must become global citizens: open-minded, bilingual kids ready to see global interconnectedness as both opportunity and welcome challenge. Learning a second language is an integral part of this cross-cultural sophistication.

Take action, now! I’ve called my Members of Congress and so should YOU – before Friday. We’ve got to do what’s right for our kids.

5 Comments on “Congress Should Stop Cutting Education: Foreign Language Programs Matter

  1. 50 years ago U.S. Fulbright said, “Our linguistic and cultural myopia is losing us friends, business and respect in the world” as America faced a crisis in education and national security.

    What would he think of our situation now?

  2. I think you have this about a wrong as it gets. Foreign languages are difficult to learn so they represent a huge personal investment for the student learning them. The problem is, electronic translator technology is advancing very rapidly, which makes study of foreign languages a bad investment. We can already buy translators for a few hundred dollars that serve well enough for most purposes. They are, in fact, far better at translating than most students of foreign language ever become. Stop trying to force our education system to prepare students for a world that will not exist. Let them focus that time and effort on the things that will not be done well by cheap machines in their lifetimes.

    • I’m not talking about translation services — the issue is much more important than that. I’m talking about understanding another culture, appreciating another perspective. That’s what learning a foreign language translates into — global awareness. Did you know that 9% of Americans are bilingual while 50% of the rest of the world is? Do you appreciate that speaking a foreign language enables us to understand and do business in other cultures? The US economy has taken a big hit since fall of 2008, and our young people must be prepared to work in and with other countries that are growing at rates much faster than we are. Competition is fierce is out there.

      If machines could replace interpersonal, cross-cultural relationships, we wouldn’t have the problem we do. They don’t and so people must continue to work across cultures — and in foreign languages.

  3. Mr. Thompson-are you serious in your response or did I just read a joke? Foreign Languages are difficult to learn? For who? You?? Your narrow minded response is nothing but a prime example of the ecocentric and ignorant culture we unfortunately have in this country.