The Lack of Foreign Language Classes in US Schools Hurts Workforce, Immigrant Students

American businesses are experiencing a growing demand for multilingual workers, according to a new report commissioned by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The study, conducted by the nonpartisan research group Ipsos Public Affairs, surveyed 1,200 upper-level managers and human resource professionals across the country about their foreign language needs.

Researchers found that 90 percent of employers rely on U.S.-based workers who speak foreign languages. A majority of those surveyed stated that their need for multilingual workers has increased during the last five years and is expected to continue growing. Nearly 35 percent said that their need for multilingual workers is not currently being met and many reported losing out on business opportunities due to this lack.

Many survey respondents expressed the desire for more emphasis on foreign language instruction starting in elementary school. Teaching young children to speak two or more languages is a common practice in most other countries, one respondent pointed out.

Only one in five American students in public K-12 schools is enrolled in a foreign language course, according to research.

This deficiency not only does a disservice to American students, but also has adverse effects on English language learners (ELLs), researchers say. A recent article published on voanews.com states that two of the most common languages spoken by ELL students are Spanish and Chinese. These languages also happen to be two of the most highly demanded by U.S. employers, according to the ACTFL report.

Education experts argue that the best way to develop ELLs’ proficiency in both English and their native language is to immerse them in both languages throughout their education, a strategy called dual language immersion. This requires a significant number of bilingual teachers, however, who tend to be hard to find, according to VOA News. The website reports that 31 states and the District of Columbia have recently reported a shortage of bilingual teachers.

For schools struggling with this issue, public policy organization New America encourages administrators to find and train teachers in their local communities, rather than look overseas. These individuals are more likely to stay in the system, saving schools money and resources, policy experts say.

New America published a more detailed list of suggested policies and practices for achieving this goal. Their suggestions include giving new teachers paid work experience opportunities under the guidance of a mentor teacher and providing veteran teachers with the chance to build their foreign language teaching credentials.