Americans have often been criticized for being complacently monolingual. That is most non-indigenous American nationals can only speak one language – English, and appear quite unwilling to learn another. Countless researchers have observed this phenomenon where most Americans shun away from any form of foreign language study (Imac, 2006).
At all levels of the formal educational system there has traditionally been a dismal representation of Americans in foreign language classes. The Modern Languages Association (MLA) observes that the majority of college students are neither adequately prepared for foreign language learning neither is there much interest in this essential area of study. This is suggesting also that at the lower levels of the institutional system – at the Middle and High school levels, that there is not much interest either and this leads to a later unwillingness to continue studies. It has been noted that students at the college level usually believe that foreign language study is not relevant, important or even possible.
Evidently little importance has been placed on the learning of a foreign language by English speakers and, though there is no officially declared national language in the United States, the default language of everyday affairs is English. Therefore since most of the world speaks English Americans do not see the need to learn another language. The study of a foreign language is also considered a not relevant because it is not necessary to have a foreign language. In any case many comment that the foreign language programs offered at institutions do not truly meet the goals of authentic foreign language learning. And Americans do not see foreign language learning as possible because many feel that, under the current language learning systems, it is quite difficult to master the essential concepts and competencies to be able to effectively function in everyday use of the language (Maxwell & Brecht, 1996).
Furthermore even when college students enroll in foreign language programs this is only for a brief period of time. According to Bower and Bower (2005) whenever college students enroll in foreign language programs they do so for on average two or three semesters. This prevents them from making optimal use of the language as it is difficult to reach a competent level within such a short time.
Educational districts are not support foreign language either. In 2002 it was reported that most school districts Denver, Colorado had decided to forgo a foreign language requirement for high school graduation. Those that not already waived this requirement were, at that time, in the process of doing so (Bower & Bower, 2005)
Other school districts have adopted similar actions. It was the waiver of foreign language requirements for graduation throughout districts in the United States that initially contributed to the sharp decline in the number of foreign language programs offered and in the total enrollment in these programs throughout the late 1960s. This period experienced a very sharp decline in enrollment in foreign language courses at all levels of the educational system and the decline was sustained well into the 1970s (Rohter, 1987).
However more English language speakers are realizing the importance of studying a foreign language. With globalization trends has come the realization that citizens have to be competent in more than one language to be able to correctly function in society. Issues of terrorism and global war have also inspired study of foreign languages so that Americans are better able to understand and develop counter strategies for dealing with the enemy (Becker, 2003). More Americans are enrolling in foreign language studies and the language of choice in the majority of cases is Spanish. The United States has a very large infiltration of native Spanish speakers which enter its borders every year. There is a very large Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican and individuals from other Spanish speaking countries residing in the United States. Approximately half of the Western Hemisphere speaks Spanish (Imac, 2006) and thus it is the second most widely spoken language in the region and within the United States.
As a result of the renewed interest in foreign language study within the United States there has been considerable increases in the number of persons studying Spanish. It is difficult to determine the exact numbers of persons who are studying Spanish across the general United States population because of the nature of foreign language learning in these days. Figure 1 is a representation of the number of students registered in Spanish courses in colleges across the U.S. from the 1960s to 2002. Levin (1996) reports that 606, 286 of 1.1 college students were studying Spanish in 1996.
Figure 1 – Number of College Students studying Spanish in the U.S.
Histogram created with information provided by Levin (1996), Becker (2003) and Bower & Bower (2005).
At the level of Congress more importance is being placed on foreign language learning because of the realization that mastery of other languages is important for the country’s overall commercial and strategic survival (Rohter, 1987).
Roach (2006) observes that though the college population increases at 15% annual the rate of increased registration in foreign language programs is 30%. In the 1990s for the first time since the record 1960s level there was a significant increase in the number of students registering for foreign language programs relative to college enrollment. Spanish accounts for more than half of college enrollment in foreign language programs (Rohter, 1987).
Evidently persons are realizing that foreign language learning is important. Spanish has become the second language of choice throughout the United States and this is a positive move away from the traditional view that foreign language learning was not essential. With technological advances the study of Spanish and other foreign languages has become even easier. Spanish is by far the most popularity studied language using these means. Admittedly the choice of Spanish may be because of its popularity but this is still encouraging since the U.S. population has a very extensive Spanish-speaking contingent.
Becker, R. (2003, Nov 6). Language boom sweeps colleges. Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Ill. p. 1.
Bower, D. & Bower, C. (2006). Importance of Spanish. Retrieved November 16, 2007 from, http://www.language-learning-advisor.com/about-language-learning-advisor.html
Imac. (2006). Why Learn Spanish. Retrieved November 16, 2007 from, http://www.spanish-school.com.mx/learnspanish.html
Levins, H. (1996, Nov 4). Learn Spanish: Why Americans Don’t. St. Louis Post – Dispatch (pre-1997 Fulltext). St. Louis, Mo. p. 6.
Roach, P. (2006, May 25). Bridging the foreign-language gap. The Seattle Times.
Rohtr, L. (1987, Jan 5). Foreign language boom seen in U.S. schools. Houston Chronicle (pre-1997 Fulltext). Houston, Tex. p. 1.