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U.S. language education lags, though its importance continues to grow

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In a study recently published by the Pew Research Center, data show that while in the United States about 20% of K-12 students are studying a foreign language, in Europe that statistic is a whopping 92%. While the figures vary widely across Europe, over half of primary and secondary school students in each country surveyed are taught another language in school: from 64% in Belgium to 100% in Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Austria, Romania, and France.

In the U.S., the number of students studying a foreign language varies widely from state to state: “New Jersey (51%) has the most students studying a language, followed by the District of Columbia (47%) and Wisconsin (36%). However, the vast majority of states have less than 25% participation, with only 9% of students studying a foreign language in New Mexico, Arizona and Arkansas.”

The main reason for this difference between European and U.S. language education is policy: there is no mandate for foreign language education in the United States, whereas over 20 countries across Europe require students to learn at least one, if not two languages. Language education, and education policy in general, is determined on a state level in the U.S., and often can even vary at local levels. Many school districts don’t start teaching a language until students have reached high school, even though research has shown that the younger a student begins learning a language, the greater the chance they will master it. While 93% of high schools across the country offer foreign languages to their students, in 2008 only 58% of middle schools and 25% of elementary schools had the option. And it’s a mixed bag on states requiring foreign language study, not just offering it: “Ten states and the District of Columbia have foreign language graduation requirements for high school students, 24 states have graduation requirements that can be met either with foreign language classes or other non-language coursework, and 16 states have no graduation guidelines concerning foreign language education.”

Another factor in language education and mastery? Whether or not the student speaks the dominant language at home. Pew found that in the EU, sizable minorities speak a language other than the national language in the home: in Ukraine, 44% speak Russian at home, while in Bulgaria, 14% speak Turkish and 6% speak Romani. The importance of speaking a different language at home is even seen here in the United States: for those who said they speak another language “very well,” “89% acquired these skills in the childhood home, compared with 7% citing school as their main setting for language acquisition.”

As the world becomes more interconnected, and cross-cultural communication skills become more highly valued, there continues to be a push for more language education across the United States. The Department of Education noted last year that in a survey of managers and human resources professionals, “a third of the survey respondents reported that their needs for foreign language skills were not being met by current employees.” However, even if students are not given the chance to learn another language growing up, that doesn’t mean they can’t gain cross-cultural communication and competence skills that help them contribute to global problem-solving and team-building. Just as companies are searching for foreign language skills, so too do they seek out employees that have skills in “global and cultural awareness, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity, and leadership.”

The most recent International Education Week, an annual event hosted by the Department of State and Department of Education, featured a panel entitled Leveraging a Global Mindset for Business Growth: Preparing Talent to Serve U.S. Industry Needs. The panel focused on the cross-cultural competence needs of businesses in today’s global economy, and identified ways that schools at both the K-12 and collegiate levels can better educate and train students to handle global challenges and interact effectively across cultures.

Ready to put your own cross-cultural competence skills to the test? Check out CultureReady Basics right here on, offered in seven languages including English, to expand your own understanding of the world around you.

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