Foreign Language Critical to National Security and Economic Competitiveness

As commerce becomes increasingly globalized, the need to speak a foreign language becomes more critical by the day. A 2011 survey by the University of Phoenix’s research group found that 42% of employers expected business proficiency in Chinese to be in moderate or high demand over the next 10 years, and 70% of employers expected the same to be true for Spanish.1 Parents share these concerns: According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 46% of K–12 parents surveyed said there is not enough emphasis in schools on foreign language instruction.2 The previously mentioned Council on Foreign Relations 2012 study, Education Reform and National Security, confirmed the startling number of young people unqualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records—or have an inadequate level of education.

Despite this demand from businesses, parents, and national security leaders, results from foreign language Advanced Placement (AP) exams are not encouraging.

AP exams are offered in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Latin, and there are two exams in Spanish (language and literature). Using data provided to us by the College Board, we broke down passage rates by state. 

The table below demonstrates the pattern. The highest-performing state, California, saw just less than 9% of its graduates pass an AP language exam. For the next three highest-performing states—Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts—passage rates hovered around 5%. Nearer the bottom of the list, West Virginia saw just over one-tenth of 1% of students pass a foreign language exam, and the two bottom performers, Mississippi and North Dakota, saw only 0.05% of their students pass a foreign language exam. 

It is also important to note that the two highest-performing states have large populations of Hispanic students and had the bulk of their AP passages on the Spanish language and literature exams. California, for example, saw 87.4% of its foreign language exams taken in either Spanish language or Spanish literature. In Florida, it was 89.5%; in Texas, it was a whopping 95%.

What can forward-thinking states do to address the lack of foreign language proficiency? Part of the problem lies in dwindling foreign language instruction, especially in earlier grade levels. As schools continue to focus heavily on improving reading and math scores—a necessary and noble ambition—courses deemed superfluous are often first on the chopping block. According to a major study by the Center for Applied Linguistics, the percentage of elementary schools offering foreign language instruction dropped from 31% in 1997 to 25% in 2008; during the same time frame, middle school instruction fell from 75% to 58%.3 Yet if the United States wants to play a leading role in a global economy, states will need to invest in foreign language instruction. In an era of dwindling state budgets, this task is not easy but there are promising examples to model.

The Baldwin County schools in southern Alabama are experimenting in leveraging technology to teach foreign languages. The school district purchased licenses for the language program Rosetta Stone for its students, school staff, and teachers to devote time each week for students to work through language lessons. Students are learning Spanish, German, Italian, and a variety of other languages—all with minimal need for formal staff to lead instruction.4

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition also offers technology-based resources for foreign language teachers, including instructional modules, an online summer institute for those interested in teaching online language courses, and a vibrant discussion group for teachers.5

At the state level, in Utah, state money is being used to implement a number of foreign language immersion programs. Students in the Utah Dual Language Immersion Program spend half of their school day in the target language and the other half-day in English. Utah Governor Gary Herbert is targeting 100 Dual Language Immersion programs to enroll 30,000 students by 2014—a strong use of the bully pulpit to drive forward a bold agenda for foreign language instruction.6

Given advances in technology, novel delivery models for instruction, and Web-based assessment capabilities, schools can teach foreign languages without breaking the bank. If schools wish to make their students internationally competitive, these options are worth exploring.

State Percentage of Students Who Graduate Having Passed a World Languages AP Exam
Alabama 0.56%
Alaska 1.06%
Arizona 2.68%
Arkansas 0.88%
California 8.78%
Colorado 3.09%
Connecticut 4.03%
Delaware 1.34%
District of Columbia 4.36%
Florida 5.23%
Georgia 2.03%
Hawaii 0.20%
Idaho 0.34%
Illinois 4.02%
Indiana 1.16%
Iowa 0.70%
Kansas 0.60%
Kentucky 1.04%
Louisiana 0.32%
Maine 1.27%
Maryland 3.44%
Massachusetts 4.81%
Michigan 0.96%
Minnesota 0.99%
Mississippi 0.05%
Missouri 0.53%
Montana 0.52%
Nebraska 0.88%
Nevada 2.64%
New Hampshire 1.33%
New Jersey 3.95%
New Mexico 2.98%
New York 4.13%
North Carolina 1.18%
North Dakota 0.04%
Ohio 1.20%
Oklahoma 0.87%
Oregon 1.22%
Pennsylvania 1.47%
Rhode Island 2.08%
South Carolina 1.18%
South Dakota 0.38%
Tennessee 0.75%
Texas 4.98%
Utah 1.20%
Vermont 1.98%
Virginia 3.31%
Washington 2.15%
West Virginia 0.12%
Wisconsin 1.26%
Wyoming 0.75%