The Fight for Foreign Language Programs in a Multilingual World

By Sara Faradji

There is no doubt that foreign language programs have been at the forefront of education policy initiatives in recent decades. As the diverse and plurilingual world continues to expand, many state officials see the inherent value of providing foreign language instruction to students from a young age. Nonetheless, it appears that economic concerns may be a significant hindrance to this national vision of multilingualism, as recent state budget cuts have prompted public schools from the primary to the tertiary levels to cut back on their foreign language programs.

According to Jason Koebler at U.S. News, the Department of Education’s Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) that funded $27 million worth of foreign language education grants was cut from a new budget bill, and state legislatures have followed suit by cutting a number of recent additions to the foreign language curriculums in public schools. The most significant cuts were directed toward elementary school programs, which seems counterintuitive since numerous studies show that students have the greatest success in acquiring a new language at younger ages. The Des Moines Register reports that universities are also downsizing their language programs due to budget constraints, as French and German majors have been eliminated within the past two years at Louisiana State University, South Carolina State University, the University of Maine, and the University of Nevada-Reno.

This issue hits rather close to home for me, as I have worked alongside several students and professors whose academic futures will be affected by foreign language cuts at the University of Pittsburgh. An April announcement by the university revealed that it had “suspended admission” to its German program, in addition to other programs in the humanities and natural sciences, as a result of the thirty percent reduction in state funding. This came as a shock to many students, as the University of Pittsburgh is renowned for its incredibly diverse range of foreign language course programs that include offerings in Slavic, East Asian, and even less-commonly-taught languages such as Farsi and Irish Gaelic. Issuing cutbacks on a popular European language program particularly surprised German department chair John Lyon, who told Eleanor Chute with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that an estimated 500 students a year enrolled in German courses. Many students at the university have led demonstrations and signed a petition asking the dean of the school to reconsider the new admission suspension policy.

As schools across the nation begin to eliminate or reduce the size of their foreign language programs, one may wonder what will the future of language and humanities programs will look like? While it seems that European language programs such as French and German are the most at risk now, one doctoral student in Slavic Languages and Literatures tells me that she fears her program could be the next to suffer from cuts. While Slavic languages such as Russian may still be considered “critical languages” in large demand within the national professional sector, it is evident that the study of these languages has been superseded in the most recent decade by the study of East Asian and Middle Eastern languages. As the international political and economic climate continues to evolve, the surface value of learning predominant Western and Eastern European languages may change as well.

These foreign language program cuts at American universities prompted me to question whether other colleges around the world were witnessing similar concerns. While studying abroad this summer in South Africa, a largely multilingual nation that recognizes eleven official languages, many students I interacted with at the University of KwaZulu-Natal indicated that foreign language learning is an essential part of the national culture that begins in primary school and extends throughout tertiary education. The 2001 census indicates that only 8.2 percent of South Africans are native English speakers, but many students learn English as their second language and eventually study another language in secondary school or at the university. The University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of Cape Town do not have degree programs in many of the critical languages yet, but they do offer majors in several European languages such as French, German, and Italian. Even though many South Africans are encouraged to pursue more technical degrees in areas such as science and engineering, students continue to see the value of including language courses in their curricula. Australians are also encouraging more widespread foreign language education from an early age, as national Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott has supported a language policy that, according to the 2009 Building an Asia-Literate Australia report from Asia studies scholar Michael Wesley, would invest $11.3 billion over thirty years into fostering a new generation of multilinguals. Many students should be thrilled by this news, Bernard Lane from The Australian reports that the number of Spanish degree students at the University of Melbourne has increased by 539 percent over the past three years, while the number of people pursuing Chinese studies at the University of Western Australia has increased by 111 percent in the last year.

The strength of some foreign language programs in the United States may be slowly but steadily waning, but it is essential to realize that the world is not becoming any more monolingual. All languages, including the ones that are not nationally regarded as “critical,” represent crucial communication systems for certain key parts of the world. Although globalization has ushered in a new era where science and technology are indeed paramount, one should not assume that language and cultural studies will decrease in importance over the coming decades. After all, the most successful global innovations require effective cross-cultural communication and understanding. The United States should look to its international neighbors and recognize that newly implemented foreign language programs should be allowed to grow rather than be suspended.

For more information concerning national and international foreign language education, please take a look at the series of headline news stories featured on this blog, Save Our Foreign Languages.

Sara Faradji is a senior majoring in Global Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon is home to the Upsilon of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.