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Foreign Language Policies Around the World

On the occasion of International Mother Language Day, we have been looking at the importance of languages in schools. Today, Heather Singmaster, senior program associate, Asia Society, looks at how other countries are examining their language policies as part of workforce development strategies.

By Heather Singmaster

It is no secret that Americans lag behind in learning foreign languages despite urgent calls from the business and national security sectors. Yet it is barely a part of our policy discussion here—much to our detriment.

In other countries, this conversation is not only happening, it is a prominent part of the national discourse. Why? They see foreign language as key to economic development, even if their first language is English. They don't feel they can rely on their native tongue alone—nor should we.

A Continuing Discourse
Australia has had an ongoing conversation about the need for students to study Asian languages. The latest development happened last November, when Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard released the Asian Century white paper, listing key goals to allow the country to take advantage of nearby Asian markets. The paper calls for students to be given the opportunity to study one of four languages throughout their entire school career: Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian, and Japanese.

A flurry of articles met this call, with most experts agreeing with the reasoning, but citing huge obstacles, including the US$1billion price tag for implementing such a requirement for just half of Australia. Adelaide University Asian studies expert Kent Anderson says this would be a tall order, but a crucial one: ''what is really important about learning a language is learning empathy for someone else, and learning empathy for another culture. You are able to understand, which will make you a better business person and makes it easier to have longer-term relationships.''

Meanwhile, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called on businesses to set quotas on the number of employees they hire who can speak an Asian language, reasoning that this would encourage students to learn them. (Incidentally, he announced this idea in a speech in China, delivered in fluent Mandarin.)

In Scotland, a recent study by the British Council showed a decline in foreign language study as well as a tendency of Scottish companies to only export to English speaking countries. Not wanting to miss out on economic opportunities, the Scottish government is responding with an examination of their foreign language requirements. Currently study of a second language is required beginning in grade six, but a new proposal would change this to grade one—allowing students to start a third language in grade five.

When examining the change to the policy, two issues are being considered: capacity of the curriculum and the role of languages in supporting the economy. Minister for Learning Alasdair Allan said: "This government has set an ambitious target to increase the value of our international exports by 50% by 2017, and ensuring our workforce has the right skills to compete internationally will play an important role in achieving this." He continues, "This is why we are committed to reinvigorating language learning and helping more Scottish pupils learn a second language such as French, German, Spanish or Chinese in primary school."

Language Required
Neighboring England, in response to a study showing their students are less likely to study a second language to a decent level compared to their European peers, will require all English primary students to learn a second language starting in 2014. Schools have the choice of offering one of seven languages: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin, and ancient Greek. Elizabeth Truss, the Education Minister, said: "We must give young people the opportunities they need to compete in a global jobs market—fluency in a foreign language will now be another asset our school leavers and graduates will be able to boast."

Similarly, in Czechoslovakia, students are currently required to take a second language beginning in third grade (most take English). A third language used to be optional, however the government announced in January that it is now mandatory, beginning in eighth grade or earlier.

Expanding the Conversation
In most Asian countries, children begin learning a second language, usually English, in the primary grades. That doesn't necessarily mean that parents are satisfied. In Japan, a recent study showed that 90% of parents just aren't happy with their children's English language classes. Parents feel their children aren't gaining enough practical language knowledge and they lack the opportunity to actually speak in class. The study showed that parents are highly supportive of learning a second language and producing globally competent students: "93.6 of parents want their children to have a global viewpoint and 83.3% want their children to be globally competitive."

Similarly in China, students may be learning English in school starting in grade three, but many parents feel this isn't enough. Students are sent to expensive centers for learning English after school and increasingly, students in middle and high school are being sent to the United States to study. According to China Daily, 65 middle school aged children studied in the U.S. in 2005, that number increased to 6,725 in 2010. Parents feel their students will need to be able to compete internationally when they grow up and therefore need a global outlook.

With all of these conversations happening around the world, can Americans afford to continue to turn a deaf ear?

Follow Heather Singmaster and Asia Society PGL on Twitter.

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