Schools drop foreign languages

Short of funding, elementary and middle schools are dropping foreign language study, reports the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

From 1997 to 2008, the share of all U.S. elementary schools offering language classes fell from 31% to 25%, while middle schools dropped from 75% to 58%. High school language instruction was static, according to the nationwide survey published this year by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

The central Wisconsin village of Marathon City cut Chinese-language classes this year, after five years of offering the language. Why Chinese? Marathon City grows ginseng, used in Chinese herbal medicine. China is a major customer.

“In a world of global trade, a second language can be a surefire ticket to a career,” reporter John Schmid asserts.


Much of Europe and Asia, by contrast, make second and third languages compulsory, beginning early in grade school, according to Center for Applied Linguistics researcher Nancy Rhodes, who wrote the report on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education.

“They will all become multilingual students of the world, while U.S. students plod along,” Rhodes said. “We’ll be left in the dust and unable to communicate with people around the world.”

Chinese grade-schoolers start learning English by third grade under a national law that supports Beijing’s export ambitions – which means China is producing English speakers by the hundreds of millions.

We’ll be able to communicate: They’re all learning English! It’s the language of trade. When the Chinese stop teaching English, we’re doomed.

About Joanne


  1. Typical short-sidedness. We’d rather spend resources giving teachers a cushy pension starting at age 55 then teach our children something that will enable them to be competitive in the global marketplace.

  2. Can’t you tell I’m in a wonderful mood that the union stooge triumphed over the parental advocate in our local school board race?

  3. When I was in elementary school back in the 90’s I don’t think we had any language classes available and neither did we in middle school. I think we are definitely behind other nations but you can’t compare our educational system, which is compulsory to other countries where it’s more on an elitist basis. In nations like China, you have to pay for your schooling and if you’re not strong academically you get weeded out. That makes the system more rigorous and tougher academically.

  4. My kids have an ease with languages, but to tell the truth–English is the international language of just about everything. My son is in grad school in Hungary, and all his classes are taught in English (he’s studying international business) and while most of the EU students do speak a couple of languages each, they all speak English. While foreign languages are great, not everyone has the ability to actually become fluent. I think there’s plenty of reasons for children to be exposed to another language, but trying to sell languages as essential for future employment is a canard.

  5. Color me happy. Language instruction is full employment for teachers, and should be stopped. It should be elective only at both middle school and high school.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    Language learning is a largely pragmatic exercise. We live on a continent of 3 major countries (USA, Canada, Mexico) where 2 languages are spoken by 90% of the population. I’m not counting French because French speakers are a small minority in North America. If we include Meso/Latin/South America in the calculation it hardly alters that 90% figure. While Portuguese, French, or the languages of indigenous tribes are spoken, English and Spanish dominate.

    Europeans, Asians, and Africans are surrounded by neighbors with differing languages. How many languages are spoken by large populations on continential Europe? 12? perhaps 15?

    Americans will learn other languages when they need to. Is it helpful to have a readily available population of skilled foreign language speakers? Of course. But expecting Americans who have little interaction with other languages on a day to day basis to enthusiastically embrace bilingualism on a large scale is unrealistic.

    Our local public schools gentle introduces Spanish to our mostly English speakers in elementary school. Spanish is offered in the middle school to all students while French, Chinese and Latin are also offered to the high track academic kids in high school.

  7. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    People in other countries learn languages that are practical for them to learn. Also, there’s an obvious choice.

    Take Finland. Finnish is unrelated to most European languages and a monolingual Finn has more limited opportunities than a bi or tri-lingual Finn. The obvious languages to learn are English and Swedish..

    What’s the obvious language we should learn? ?Everyone says Spanish, but knowledge of Spanish does not improve the life of the average American much, unless the American in question works in certain professions or in certain areas. Studying Spanish just to teach it in K12 also seems like a dicey proposition since you’re competing with MILLIONS of native speakers.

  8. Ex-Physics Teacher, there are many, many jobs in metro areas that are reserved for bilingual (English-Spanish) applicants: business, education, social services, health care, hospitality . . .

  9. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:

    first, there are many bilingual Spanish-English speakers whose first language was Spanish. How are whitebread Americans who studied Spanish in school supposed to compete regarding Spanish? In addition, the competition grew up in the States speaking Spanish at home and English outside.

    Most of the Spanish teachers in the school where I taught were from South America.

    Second, the number of these jobs is small compared to the MILLIONS of students who are urged to learn Spanish.

    Third, not everyone lives in large metro areas.

  10. tim-10-ber says:

    All US kids should be learning a foreign language starting in kindergarten…probably should be spanish or chinese…my bet in on chinese as the one that will be needed most in the coming years…

  11. If you don’t understand the economic value of learning other languages (preferably ones with large populations that also are economically powerful such as Spanish, Chinese, French, Japanese, and German and/or ones that are in demand because the government needs speakers because of security issues- Arabic, Russian, Chinese again, Farsi) then you really do not understand the modern world and the needs of a globalized future. If you are advising kids to only study English because people of other countries are learning some English then you do not understand economics, business, leadership, or human nature (even if some Chinese business person speaks English, they will be more impressed by an American who can speak Mandarin than one who can not). Learning languages is a critical part of being competitive in the modern globalized society.

  12. Mike Curtis says:

    How do you say…como se dice…”I don’t care.” in Canadian?

    The next thing you know, a financially stripped school district will discover that Sociology is not really a “science.”

    When you quit paying for things that don’t pay you back, you’re on the path towards fiscal enlightenment. English is the language of commerce, diplomacy, air traffic control, the internet, and the entertainment industry. If you wish to, internationally, sell, buy, fly, understand the horror of “Jaws,” find your soulmate on Facebook, or land safely in Paris, you’ll understand why teaching non-English in elementary and secondary U.S. public schools would be at the bottom of the heirarchy of pubicly funded educational budget.

  13. Diana Senechal says:

    But what about other reasons for studying languages? If you study another language, you get to read its literature in the original. You gain insights into grammar and etymology. You start to see how imprecise translation is–how certain words and expressions don’t translate well, and how a language’s sounds and meanings are tied up together. You start to see both the new language and your own from the outside.

    That reminds me of a passage from Nabokov’s Pnin:

    “The organs concerned in the production of English speech sounds are the larynx, the velum, the lips, the tongue (that punchinello in the troupe), and, last but not least, the lower jaw; mainly upon its overenergetic and somewhat ruminant motion did Pnin rely when translating in class passages in the Russian grammar or some poem by Pushkin. If his Russian was music, his English was murder. He had enormous difficulty (‘dzeefeecooltsee’ in Pninian English) with depalatalization, never managing to remove the extra Russian moisture from t‘s and d‘s before the vowels he so quaintly softened. His explosive ‘hat’ (‘I never go in a hat even in winter’) differed from the common American pronunciation of ‘hot’ (typical of Waindell townspeople, for example) only by its briefer duration, and thus sounded very much like the German verb hat (has). Long o‘s with him inevitably became short ones: his ‘no’ sounded positively Italian, and this was accentuated by his trick of triplicating the simple negative (‘May I give you a lift, Mr. Pnin?’ ‘No-no-no, I have only two paces from here’). He did not possess (nor was he aware of this lack) any long oo: all he could muster when called upon to utter ‘noon’ was the lax vowel of the German ‘nun’ (‘I have no classes in afternun on Tuesday. Today is Tuesday.’)”

  14. Ex-PhysicsTeacher says:


    I’m not saying it’s bad to know foreign languages, but that the ratio of cost/benefit is higher for Americans than it is for residents of other countries. Finns learn Swedish but Swedes don’t learn Finnish very often. Why? The cost outweighs the benefit.
    Hungarians learn German, but I don’t think very many learn Vietnamese. Why not?
    How many Germans learn Hungarian?

    For MOST Americans learning a foreign language is about as beneficial as Hungarian is to Germans or Finnish to Swedes.

    I myself learned Polish before English, and I’m glad I did, but I learned the language for free. I didn’t shell out tens of thousands for a bachelors degree.

    It takes a lot of effort and time to invest in a foreign language just to be able to ask for directions and understand the response. For most people that effort is probably better spent on other pursuits.

  15. We’d rather spend resources giving teachers a cushy pension starting at age 55 then teach our children something that will enable them to be competitive in the global marketplace.

    How dare we think about paying teachers a pension they’ve earned when there are banks to bailout, billions in taxcuts to give to the oil giants and other Wall Street types in need.

  16. Stacy in NJ says:

    Diana, Your right that learning another language offers many benefits, but when resources need to be allocated rationally, how sensible is it to focus on foreign languages for MOST or ALL American students? Not very. It would be nice if MOST or ALL American children could speak and read English fluently.

    Foreign language learning will remain what it has been for generations in America: the territory of the handful of very motivated or the children of the elite.

  17. Many students only grasp the grammar of ENGLISH when they study the grammar of another language.

    I’ll bet studying foreign languages gives the neurons an excellent workout that has spin-off effects.

    Studying foreign languages helps one relate to ESL speakers much, much more considerately because you understand how difficult it is to learn a second language. Having struggled with French, German and Spanish, I know to enunciate clearly, speak more slowly and restrict my vocabulary with shaky English learners. I see many Americans obtusely skip these courtesies.

  18. Plus it’s cool to know another language. It’s power.

  19. Cool. Gives my students (with their choice among 6 foreign langs) a real competitive edge. You all go ahead and eliminate it if you want.

  20. “Many students only grasp the grammar of ENGLISH when they study the grammar of another language.”

    Yes, this.

    If foreign language instruction becomes impractical for one some schools to offer, then perhaps a move toward online / virtual / distance learning should be considered. At least, as an option for the kids who want to pursue it.

  21. Color me happy. Language instruction is full employment for teachers, and should be stopped. It should be elective only at both middle school and high school.

    It is where I teach, although the incoming HS freshman class next year will be required to take two sequential years of a language for graduation.

  22. How dare we think about paying teachers a pension they’ve earned

    The private sector by and large switched over to a 401k-style pension system two decades ago and most folks work well into their 60’s. Why should teachers and other school employees be eligible to retire at 55 at a guaranteed 90% of final year’s salary with annual cost-of-living increases?

    If I make a poor investment decision in my 401k, then I simply have less money on which to retire. But when the school pension fund administrators make a bad investment and lose hundreds of millions of dollars, then that money has to come out of the rest of the district budget because by God, we’ve guaranteed that the teacher pensions will be a set amount regardless of market conditions.


  23. “If you study another language, you get to read its literature in the original.”

    Do you know how many years it take before you can really do this? I’m not against kids learning a 2nd language, but in real-world terms, it’s not a high priority, even in international business or foreign affairs. (How many languages does Hillary Clinton speak?)

    And jobs that require Spanish/English tend to be rather low-level or public sector jobs aimed at recruiting Latino minorities.

  24. Woo! Hey, CW, where are you? I am clearly living in the wrong area of the country. If my pee-training (once during planning, once after swallowing lunch in twelve minutes) is more valuable elsewhere, I may need to think about moving!

  25. CW, saying that my pension sucks so other people don’t deserve better is the argument of a three-year-old child. It doesn’t make you look immature, however: it makes you look petty, self-centered, and stupid.

  26. Pensions are administered at the state level. It only comes out of district budgets if the fund asks for an increase in what we pay in. Most teachers work into their 60’s to qualify for medicare. 90% of 40K when you suck $600/month medical insurance out of it isn’t exactly living high on the hog.

  27. Mark Roulo says:

    CW, saying that my pension sucks so other people don’t deserve better is the argument of a three-year-old child.

    The breakdown here is that CW (and lots of other people, too) will soon be asked to pay more taxes (or accept fewer government services) to pay for these other people’s pensions.

    But CW didn’t negotiate the pensions. Other people did. So we have the following actors:
       1) The public employees who are scheduled to retire on a pension,
       2) The politicians 20,30,etc. years ago who agreed to these pensions.
       3) The taxpayers from 20,30,etc. years ago who received the services from group (1) and voted in the politicians in group (2).
       4) The taxpayers today who are on the hook to pay group (1) for services provided to group (3) in years past.

    CW is in group (4).

    What is unfortunate about the situation is that the actors currently on the hook are group (1), who feel justifiably that they should be payed the pensions they were promised [hey, the did the work!] and group (4), who made no such promises but are being told that the fair thing to do is for them to pay up.

    If group (3) and group (4) were separated geographically it would be pretty clear that group (3) could not legitimately vote for group (2) to give group (1) money from group (4) in exchange for services. For example, if California voted that Texans would pay for next years CalTrans services it would be obvious that this is wrong. And the Texans would laugh at us.

    Unfortunately, the separation here isn’t geographic, but in time. 30 years ago a bunch of Californians made a deal that much later some other group of people would be on the hook to pay out a lot of money. The group expected to pay up is alive today, and I think it is going to be an interesting (in the Chinese sense) experience to see how this plays out. It won’t be pretty.

    -Mark Roulo

  28. Stacy in NJ says:

    The defined benefit plans most teachers enjoy will soon be a thing of the past. While it may be impossible to do anything about current pension obligations, you can bet most of the tax paying public won’t tolerate hanging on the hook for the next generation of public employees.

    Thank God I live in NJ where our Governor is THE MAN.

  29. Stacy in NJ says:

    Since this thread is about foreign languages, I’m wondering how many of the wonderful posters here are fluent in more than one language.

    I am not, although I did study two years of Spanish in high school and one year in college.

  30. My mother-in-law is the one who gets the 90% of her final year’s salary and she was making a heck of a lot more than 40k. I don’t know the exact figure but it was likely fairly close to the top of her district’s payscale given she had a doctorate plus over 30 years’ experience. According to what I found on the web, in 2007 when she retired the maximum a classroom teacher could make in her district was $87.2k. 20% of the classroom teachers there were making >$75k and I’m positive she would’ve been in that 20%.

    I don’t mind paying taxes that directly benefit the students in the classroom today, but it absolutely infuriates me to have to pay them for a bad political decision made back when I was myself in elementary school…

  31. Diana Senechal says:


    It depends on what you mean by fluent.

    I am fairly fluent in Russian and Spanish–I can hold my own in long conversations, participate in seminars in the language, and read literature without a dictionary. I have taught in both languages.Of course there are unfamiliar situations that would stump me at first. I feel a little rusty in both languages, because I am not speaking them frequently these days. But they are there.

    I have been fluent in Dutch–it is rusty now, but I can read novels and stories. I lived in the Netherlands at age 10 and was speaking Dutch instead of English, all the time, by the end of the year. I became almost as fluent in French during high school and read a good deal of French literature then and later.

    I have recently returned to Latin and Greek on my own. I took four years of Latin and three of Greek in high school, reading Plato, Homer, Ovid, and Virgil in the original. I have forgotten some of the details of the grammar and much vocabulary, but they come back rapidly as I read.

    I have taken courses in Croatian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Old Church Slavic–not nearly enough to become conversant, but enough that I can read many texts with a dictionary. I can make my way through German with a dictionary as well.

    My first language was Portuguese–my parents were on a Fulbright in Brazil, and I started speaking there. But I have forgotten the Portuguese I knew.

    I love memorizing poems in other languages–Lithuanian, Russian, French, for instance. I have translated a manuscript of Lithuanian poetry with the help of Russian literal translations. I memorized a fairly long poem in Bengali to recite to my middle school students, and I recently memorized the first ode in Sophocles’ Antigone. What amazes me is how much comes clear through the memorizing itself–how the words and structures fall into place and start to make sense.

    I can’t imagine my life without these languages. I haven’t done them justice–I’ve let them slip more than I should–but I hear words in different ways because of these languages. I hear the rhythms of the poems of these languages. I reach for books in the languages–every day I read something besides English. And if this sounds like a lot, it is very little compared to what many Europeans take for granted.

  32. Stacy in NJ says:

    Wow, that’s really impressive, Diana. What a wonderful gift. But, as your experience illustrates, the practical had a lot to do with at least some of your language acquisition. Living in a foreign country at a young age, I hear, really enhances ones ability to aquire the language. Most Americans don’t and won’t have that experience. While I do think foreign language study is valuable, we need to prioritize the need to and the want to.

  33. Why should teachers and other school employees be eligible to retire at 55 at a guaranteed 90% of final year’s salary with annual cost-of-living increases?

    How about it is a negotiated contract? Should contracts be broken just b/c you don’t like them?

    BTW, please tell me what state your mother in law works in. I’m about to hit the top of the Texas payscale, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50K.

    Not nearly as nice as a member of Congress or a corporate CEO. Do you really begrudge your mother in law, with her PhD and 30 years teaching experience, the pension she’s worked to earn? She held up her end of the deal, AND more than likely paid into her own pension fund, and now its time for your state to keep its end of the bargain.

  34. Why should anyone think that all teachers, or most teachers, or a significant percentage of teachers, can “retire at 55 at a guaranteed 90% of final year’s salary”? Where I teach (Shenandoah Valley), it takes 53 years of service to get a 90% pension, which means that even someone who started teaching fresh out of college at 22 would still have to work until he or she was 75 to retire on 9/10ths pay. (Retirement pay is 1.7% of final year’s salary for every year of service.) I know some teachers who are working past 65, and some who’ve taught for 40 years, but I’ve never heard of one with 53 years service. Not all public-school teachers have fat pension plans. I don’t think anyone in my county make $75,000 either, except maybe the principals. I certainly don’t make anywhere near that, with 17 years experience and a PhD.

  35. “Typical short-sidedness. We’d rather spend resources giving teachers a cushy pension starting at age 55 then teach our children something that will enable them to be competitive in the global marketplace.”

    Wow. So you’re stating that the funding cuts to foreign language programs have gone directly to enhancing teacher pensions? That’s a remarkable statement. I’d like to see the evidence for that.

    And heavens, what’s wrong with giving teachers a decent pension?

  36. Me! I’m fluent in Greek. I’m also fluent in stable Spanish (most of the guys who work at the stables around here are from Mexico). I can read French.

    I dislike the “If I don’t need to know it, you don’t need to know it” line of argumentation. It’s embarassing. I prefer my students to know much more than I did at their ages. It isn’t much of an accomplishment otherwise.

    Stacy, after every last benefit for teachers has been cut and there really is no redeeming reason to go into education, please don’t complain that smart people don’t become teachers.

  37. Mike and LS, I want you to have a generous pension, but one that is fiscally sustainable for the state you live in. Ergo, one that’s fully funded as you go along (by you and your employer). It’s hard to imagine that it won’t also be, in some sense, defined contribution rather than defined benefit. It’s not the size of teacher and other public employee pensions that’s a problem, it’s the irrational and politically dishonest way that they’re funded.

  38. My mother-in-law is the same age as my father, and nobody’s giving him a guaranteed 90% of final salary plus annual cost-of-living raises. In fact, I don’t know anyone Baby Boomer aged who worked in the private sector and now receives a traditional pension.

    The “legacy” costs are a huge drag on school budgets the way they are for U.S. auto manufacturers and airlines. The only difference is that I have the choice to not buy a GM or fly Delta. I don’t have the choice to stop paying taxes.

  39. Stacy in NJ says:

    LS –

    “Stacy, after every last benefit for teachers has been cut and there really is no redeeming reason to go into education, please don’t complain that smart people don’t become teachers.”

    Hmmm, I’m not sure why you’ve addressed me here, but I’ll respond as if this isn’t a propos of nothing.

    Who said we wanted all benefits to teachers cut? We want teachers to receive equitable benefits and compensation. They currently receive benefits significantly in excess of those available to most in the free market. Previously your side could make the argument that teachers and other public servants give up potentially larger salaries for the extra benefits and job security. According to recent news reports, we’ve now reached the point where these same public servants are receiving salaries in excess of those paying the taxes. It simply doesn’t compute. Now, I’m talking specifically about the cirumstances I know here in NJ. Teachers in NJ make no contribution at all to their very generous health, life, disability and dental benefits. They also enjoy a defind benefit pension program. Of course, this is all coming to an incremental end as Governor Christy beats the heck out of them (We love you Gov.!).

    Currently our unemployment level is 9.6%. Color me skeptical that droves of qualified teachers will leave the field to enjoy the insecurity and reduced benefits of the free market. I’m sure there is a break even point, both for teaches and the public, and absent agressive union influence peddling, I’m sure we’ll find it.

  40. Joanne- there would be more money in the budget for instruction (including foreign language) if so much of it wasn’t getting soaked up by ridiculously cushy benefits. Many of the private schools in my area spend less per-student than the government-run schools do but offer electives like foreign language, art, music, daily PE, etc. precisely because they spend that money on classroom instruction rather than on retiree pensions & benefits.

  41. Ridiculously cushy benefits?

    Let’s see, my salary is right about the nation teachers’ average after 18 years and a Master’s Degree, a decent healthcare plan for my family and I would cost over a grand a month, and my pension will be less than half of my current salary.

    Yep, that’s ridiculous alright. Good thing I have the almighty powerful unions to look after me.

  42. I pay into my pension (16% of my salary) and have a $3000 deductible on my health plan, which I also pay a premium on. Believe me, I earn FAR less than most of the people in my district.

    My husband has a pension coming. Two actually. Plus social security. He’s in the public sector.

    Most of the private high schools around here are about $18K/year (the more prestigious are about $35K). My district spends $9K/year per student.

  43. Most of the private high schools around here are about $18k/yr (the more prestigious are about $35k)

    I thought we were talking about language instruction in elementary school. Many of the private elementary schools in my area charge less than the $12k/yr that our district spends per student (a bunch charge in the $5.5k-$7k range). Yet they still manage to provide the kind of electives that the government-run elementary schools don’t…

  44. Wow, it is amazing what programs school districts will drop when faced with budget cuts. Foreign language programs are important for young children. Fortunately, there are still ways for parents to teach their children outside of school too with foreign language books,games, movies, and more.