Language study is up on U.S. college campuses — and that's good. But that doesn't mean that U.S. students will soon be as proficient in languages as many of their peers in other nations. For that to happen, our nation's educational system needs to greatly expand language opportunities, from kindergarten through graduate school.
A new Modern Language Association survey found that foreign language study at U.S. colleges increased 12.9 percent from 2002 to 2006. Some 8.6 percent of college students were enrolled in such classes — still only half of the 16.5 percent high, which was in 1965.
Growth in Arabic classes was greatest: Their enrollment more than doubled, which isn't surprising. Sept. 11, 2001, showed how important knowledge of Arabic is to national security. But the MLA report found growth in the study of many other languages, including Chinese, Spanish and American Sign Language.
Much of the growth is pragmatic: Colleges are once again requiring languages. But interest beyond meeting degree requirements is also a factor. U.S. students finally seem to be realizing that, whether it's doing business in China or treating patients in the Triad, knowing another language — or at least knowing about the culture connected to another language — is increasingly essential in this globalized age.
The MLA study was careful to point out that most of the growth has been in basic, not high-level, courses, which means that most college students aren't becoming fluent in a second language. To meet the growing need for such fluency, the MLA calls for providing opportunities for language instruction that begin earlier — in kindergarten — and that are sustained.
Guilford outshines many counties in providing its public school students the opportunity to study foreign languages. Many other students have to wait until high school for the chance. School systems must change that. In the interconnected 21st century, foreign language instruction is for many an essential, not a frill.