The Department of Education program that funded $27 million worth of foreign language education grants—which were split by a mix of 55 charter schools, school districts, and states—was cut in the recent budget bill, leaving the future of foreign language classes at these schools in jeopardy.
"What this cut does is pull the rug out from these programs," Martha Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFA), says. Because the Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grants were awarded in three- or five-year increments, affected schools will have to scramble to find funding. "Some of them are in the middle of being funded; I think it'll be interesting to see how the communities react to this," Abbott says.
FLAP's absence might affect more than the schools that were being funded. Abbott says that the money was often used to pilot new foreign language classes that could then be emulated in other schools in each district. Pilot program teachers would then train other teachers to multiply each grant's effect.
[Learn four tips to help you in college foreign language classes.]
Besides FLAP, many foreign language programs are being cut by state legislatures, especially in elementary schools, where foreign language classes are often recent additions. "They've usually been added on, so it's easy to cut," Abbott says.
But many high schools are seeing their offerings limited. Schools that once offered several languages have cut programs as student enrollment drops. It doesn't make sense to offer a Russian or German class for 10 students, Abbott says.
America is seeing growth, however, in Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic classes—languages that have a high economic or national security value. According to a report released last April by ACTFA, the number of K-12 students taking Chinese classes tripled between the 2004-2005 school year and 2007-2008, while the number of students taking Japanese increased 17 percent. Only 10 states reported enrollment numbers for Arabic, but the 2,300 students represented a 172 percent increase over 2004-2005 numbers.
Both foreign and national interests have fueled the increase. The government funds several programs nationwide in languages (such as Arabic, Chinese, and Urdu) it considers critical to national security. But many of the new Chinese programs are paid for by the Chinese government.
"When a country's economy is strong, the government is often willing to support extending the learning of that language," Abbott says. In the mid-1980s, she says, the number of Japanese language programs greatly increased due to Japan's strong economy. "China is supporting and sponsoring teachers from China to extend the teaching of their language."
[Learn more about Chinese and Japanese language growth.]
Students who study a foreign language usually see academic benefits regardless of the language they're studying, according to several reports. A study of Louisiana elementary school students found that children who studied a foreign language performed better on the English section of the state exams.
College Board surveys have shown that for each year of foreign language study, average SAT scores in both the verbal and math sections increased significantly. Students who took four years of a foreign language scored more than 100 points higher on each section than students who took half a year or less.
Abbott says the benefits of foreign language education extend beyond academics.
"Students who study a foreign language have an openness and acceptance to people who speak other languages and come from other cultures," she says. "We need to be growing students who can interact around the world. If we continue to grow a citizenry that is uncomfortable interacting and can't get out there on the global stage, then we're going to find ourselves in significant trouble in the world economy and the future."