Asian Language Education on the Rise throughout America

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by Olivia Waring
A classroom used for the Verbally and Mathematically Precocious Youth summer program run out of the University of Western Kentucky is set up for a three-week Chinese language program in 2012. Image: Flickr user giftedstudieswku

Foreign language education in the US has suffered considerably since the turn of the millennium. Between 1997 and 2008, the percentage of primary schools teaching foreign languages slipped from 31 to 25%; the downturn in middle school language programs was even sharper, from 75 to 58%. According to the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages, only eleven states require high school students to take a foreign language. In the mid-nineties, 67.5% of universities enforced foreign language graduation requirements; this had dropped to just over 50% by 2010. Nearly a third of educators observed a decrease in language teaching resources after the institution of the No Child Left Behind policy.

Though language education overall is being negatively affected by budget cuts, there has been a slow but unmistakable gravitation towards Asian languages among students and educators. At both the primary and secondary school levels, the percentage of schools offering Chinese programs grew by about 3 points between 1997 and 2008, while French and German programs dwindled. Chinese and Japanese Advanced Placement exams were introduced in 2007, and since then, the number of high schools administering AP Chinese and Japanese programs has grown by 253% and 83%, respectively. During this same interval, Spanish witnessed a more modest growth of 14%, and French and German programs declined by 7% and 12%, respectively.

The Modern Language Association’s language enrollment database – which catalogues the language offerings of nearly 5300 universities throughout the US – indicates that the number of students studying Chinese at the college level more than doubled between 1998 and 2009, from 28,500 to 60,300. Japanese enrollment nearly doubled as well (43,100 to 73,300), as did Korean enrollment (4500 to 8500). Hindi enrollment practically tripled, from a mere 831 students to 2207. Traditional European languages like French and German registered moderate gains of roughly 10%, and Spanish enrollment rose by 31%.

There has also been a proliferation of Asian language immersion programs at the grade school level, and Mandarin-only instruction is currently offered at 185 elementary and middle schools throughout the country. Thirty-three of these come from Utah, which approved state funding for a Dual Language Immersion Program in 2008. Enrollment at the Middlebury Summer Chinese School in Vermont has nearly doubled since the early 1990s, and the newly-established Middlebury Korean School will open its doors for the first time in the summer of 2015.

It’s not difficult to justify this shift in linguistic priorities, given Asia’s growing prominence on the world stage. According to the National Security Education Program (NSEP), 23 Asian languages are identified as critical to US security interests. The NSA-affiliated STARTALK program strives to expose students to critical languages such as Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu, and Dari. Evolving domestic demographics also provide context for the change in focus: according to census data, the number of American citizens speaking an Asian language at home has grown by about one percentage point per decade for the last thirty years. As the profile of the average American becomes increasingly international, language education will need to diversify accordingly.

Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.