The US: A Nation of Second Language Illiterates?

So says Russell A. Berman, professor of Humanities and German at Stanford University. Arguing against the kneejerk cuts of language programs at all levels of education in the United States, Berman presents a strong case that learning a second language costs very little compared to the enormous advantages it provides. If the US really wants to remain a global player, Berman writes, second language learning must be strengthened not cut:

These language programs, targeted for cuts, are the ones that enable students to encounter another culture through that profound identification afforded only by language acquisition. Learning another culture’s language allows students to experience that culture from the inside;…”

The comparison to Europe is especially startling:

In Europe, some 50 percent of the population over the age of fifteen report being able to carry on a conversation in a second language, and the European Union has set a goal of equipping all citizens with proficiency in two non-native languages. This level of language ability will obviously represent an enormous human resource in the global economy, which is to say that the American model of education for monolingualism deprives our students of the skills they will need in tomorrow’s economy. The endemic hostility to language learning is a war against our next generation.
And not only is the US behind on second-language learning, its quickly becoming less literate in general:
The unfortunate corollary, however, is that the degradation of second-language study contributes to declining literacy in the United States, a decline that is evidenced by the poor performance of US students in the 2009 study of the Program for International Student Assessment. […] As far as reading ability goes, the United States—whose educational system was once the envy of the world—ranks only fourteenth, far behind the schools in parts of China, South Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Canada. Yes, we have a language crisis in the United States, and the lack of second-language learning is now spilling over into first-language literacy deficiencies. For all of our monolingualism, we don’t even learn our one privileged language well.

Read the entire article here.


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