Guest Post: Why Educational Leadership Needs to Stand Behind Language Education

Adding to this blog’s discussion about language education is Roslyn Tam. This post discusses the importance of language education for students. Roslyn is a regular contributor at www.educationalleadership.com.

English is the worldwide language of business and academics. Even though there are more native speakers of Mandarin Chinese than native speakers of English, English has more non-native speakers than any other language, and Mandarin is not used as a lingua franca between nations in the same way as English.

Due to this fact, many people in the United States and other English-speaking nations have become apathetic about learning languages other than English; and educational institutions have become lax about teaching world languages. This problem is compounded by the fact that many educational leadership programs are preoccupied by falling test scores and reorganizing districts after school closures.

The general attitude is that, since students in the United States already speak the most valuable language in the world, educational institutions should focus on helping students to develop skills in other areas, such as mathematics. However, this misconception is hurting the prospects of young people in the United States and educational leadership must try to find a way of reversing this trend.

One of the first things that critics of language education efforts in the United States need to realize is that the primacy of English as the global language is waning rather than waxing. This can be seen in the meteoric rise of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and MIKT (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey) economies. These are all non-English-speaking countries with large populations and rapidly growing economic strength. With the United States having become a country that produces MBAs instead of engineers, it would only make sense that education in the United States would focus on teaching these future managers and world leaders to communicate in other languages.

However instead, MBA graduates go out into the world with the expectation that everyone in these rising markets will speak to them in English. While the arrogance of this expectation has been largely understandable in the past, it will not remain so for much longer. According to one British Council report, by 2050, Spanish will have overtaken English for the #2 slot after Mandarin Chinese, and English will be on about the same level as Arabic. With the rise of other economies, particularly China,  to challenge the United States as the world’s chief economic force, English’s place as the world language of business will be seriously challenged.

Something that educators and policy makers in the United States need to bear in mind is that virtually every nation in the world with a respectable economy outperforms the United States when it comes to multilingualism. For instance, according to a 2006 report by the China Post, 40% of all students in Taiwan start learning English from preschool age. In South Korea, students are required to start learning English during their third year of elementary schooling. People in the United States may see this as a flattering example of the importance of English in the world sphere, but they must remember that as these countries gain global clout, the fact that they have already fostered a culture of multilingualism will make it even more difficult for the United States to compete with them economically in the future.

Many of the arguments against better language education in the United States center on resources. Critics feel that teaching students Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, or German from a young age is a misuse of resources. However, one thing that we should bear in mind is the fact that the advent of computer-based and Internet-based education has taken much of the cost out of language education. Schools do not necessarily even need foreign language teachers, they can take advantage of software tools such as Rosetta Stone and Fluenz or get students involved in language exchange programs with students overseas.

To keep the United States competitive in the world sphere and help American students become competitive personally, educators must consider new methods and approaches if necessary,  but foreign languages must be taught.

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