Playing Catch-up in Foreign Language Education

Firms -- and students -- that use new language-learning programs can get a leg up on their international competition.

A widening gap in school foreign language programs could make it harder for companies to compete in an increasingly diverse population and global business environment. These days, "we speak the privileged language of the world," says Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). "What if that changed? What if the whole Internet were in Chinese? Just think of it."

So firms and students alike are turning to new programs, mostly online, to help meet training needs. Even firms doing business only in the U.S. are finding it helpful to be well versed in their consumers' diverse cultures and languages. Yet during the past decade, the share of high schools offering language classes has gone from 86% to 79%, according to a study by the Center for Applied Linguistics, a think tank that promotes language education. At elementary schools, that share has fallen from 31% to 25%.

The latest innovation: combining language learning and social networking. For example, the two-year-old Hello-Hello offers a social network based program that allows students to interact with native speakers, as well as an iPad application that lets students learn on the go. Mango Languages offers an interactive, self-driven online program. Its iPhone application comes out this fall. And, over the summer, the popular language-learning company Rosetta Stone introduced its TOTALe program, which combines Rosetta Stone's traditional teaching with social networking that allows native speakers of different languages to speak to each other live. An English speaker learning Spanish will be matched up with a Spanish speaker learning English, for example.

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Many language-learning firms offer versions of their programs tailored specifically to business needs. The programs not only capitalize on consumers' appetite for interactivity and social networking, but also target the interests of younger students and workers whose expertise will be crucial in coming years. In fact, employees in their 20s and 30s are generally the ones who push for more language help from their employers, says Pete Rumpel, a vice president at Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone does about 25% of its business with private companies and educational institutions.

Enrolling in the programs is a résumé builder for employees, too. When companies make relocation decisions today, “they're not necessarily choosing between Kansas and Nebraska. They're deciding between Kansas and China,” says Rosemary Lahasky, director, communications and education/workforce policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for a Competitive Workforce. “The workforce of today and the future workforce will have to be able to speak foreign languages and be competitive. They're not going to rely on translators to get the work done.”

Businesses should also focus on educating workers about a country's culture, a feature many of the programs, including Mango, make part of their curricula. What’s more, learning just one foreign language can help a worker be more sensitive to cultural differences in many different countries, says Shuhan Wang, deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland. “It's impossible to predict which will be the 'hot' language or whether a company will send you to Russia or China,” Wang says. “But if you have studied a language, you pay attention to a lot of cues on what is not being said versus what is being said.”

Language instruction at schools is growing in certain areas, though. Enrollment in Chinese classes in U.S. public schools nearly tripled between 2005 and 2008. It rose from 20,000 students to 60,000, according to a forthcoming study by the ACTFL. Another study, by the Center for Applied Linguistics, found that 4% of U.S. secondary schools now offer Chinese, versus just 1% in 1997.

Meanwhile, according to the ACTFL study, enrollment in Spanish continues to rise, while interest in stalwarts German and French is leveling off. The number of students studying Arabic at the elementary and high school levels has increased slightly as well, though mostly in areas with high Arab populations, such as Detroit.

Proponents of foreign language instruction claim that a federal focus on reading and math has pushed out opportunities to learn new languages. While education funding for foreign languages is minimal, one government program, Startalk, recommends funding for summer programs to teach languages that aren't commonly taught in the U.S. The program started in 2007 with sponsorships for Chinese and Arabic and will reach 10 total languages, including Hindi, Urdu and Portuguese, this year.

Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter