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Preparing Students for the Multilingual Workplace

Michael Nutter

May 22, 2019

Foreign language education positions students for greater academic success and critical advantages in competitive job markets.

As of 2017, 23 percent of U.S. children were living in homes in which a language other than English was spoken. While the parental decision to raise children to be monolingual or multilingual is often influenced by social pressures and personal language abilities, the merits of multilingualism are becoming increasingly apparent.

Not only do fluently bilingual children consistently develop higher levels of self-esteem, abstract thinking skills, and empathy than their monolingual counterparts, but according to recent research, they may also be better prepared to achieve long-term professional success.

A report produced by New American Economy found that between 2010 and 2015, job postings from U.S. employers aimed at bilingual workers more than doubled, jumping from approximately 240,000 to 630,000. Within the same period, the percentage of total postings seeking bilingual employees increased by nearly 16 percent.

The rapidly rising demand for multilingual talent spans industries and regions, making educating children in secondary (or even tertiary) languages a surefire way to increase their access to future opportunities and position them for greater success. Further, while it’s possible to learn a new language at any age, research has consistently demonstrated that the cognitive ability to learn a new language diminishes over time, suggesting one’s childhood is the optimal time to master a second or third language.

Despite the potential for such favorable outcomes and children’s elevated capacity for language learning, the majority of America’s K-12 students are not given the opportunity to study languages other than English in school.

The State of Foreign Language Education in the U.S.

While around 20 percent of adults in the United States have some knowledge of more than one language, in the European Union, this figure is more than three times as high (66 percent). Despite this unflattering comparison, the American education system is largely failing to evolve in ways that could bridge this gap and prepare younger generations to meet the rising demand for multilingualism.

As of 2017, just 20 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. were enrolled in foreign language classes. States like New Mexico enroll the lowest percentage of students in foreign language classes (eight percent), while Wisconsin, Maryland, and Vermont tout some of the highest  enrollment rates (all between 35 and 36 percent). At 18 percent, Ohio falls just below the nationwide rate of enrollment.

These low numbers are likely the result of a variety of factors, among the most pressing of which is teacher shortages. Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia report that they struggle to find qualified teachers to meet their needs. At the same time, school districts across the country are facing increasingly tight budgets that often force funding cuts to programs such as foreign language instruction, physical education, and the arts.

Between 1997 and 2008, the confluence of these issues contributed to a 17 percent decline in the number of U.S. middle schools offering foreign language courses and a six percent decline in the number of U.S. elementary schools doing the same.

Further demonstrating schools’ poor track record of equipping students with secondary language skills, a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences reveals that only 16.3 percent of English-speaking adults who are fluent in another language claim to have acquired their fluency at school.

The Pitfalls of Low Multilingualism in U.S. Schools

These figures are more than merely disheartening. They are the genesis of a number of larger, interconnected problems including exacerbated inequality and reduced likelihood of academic and professional success.

Schools that do not offer adequate foreign language learning programs not only fail to equip students with the skills necessary for them to gain a competitive advantage in the modern workplace, but also undermine students’ ability to succeed academically. Studies have consistently identified links between language learning and improved reading ability, performance on standardized tests, ability to hypothesize in science, and achievement in higher education.

Further, since students’ academic performance directly impacts their schools’ ratings from evaluative bodies, schools that fail to invest in robust language learning programs are less likely to be able to elevate their own profiles.

What’s more, insufficient investment in language learning programs tends to exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities. Most notably, access to foreign language education disproportionately favors the wealthy: in 2008, while over 50 percent of private elementary schools in the U.S. offered a foreign language program, just 15 percent of public elementary schools did.

Such disparities increase the odds that private school enrollees will be able to reap the benefits of multilingualism while public school students will not. As a result, public schools are more likely to see lower overall academic outcomes and their students are likely to enjoy fewer opportunities in tomorrow’s job markets.

Equipping America’s Youth to Succeed in the Future

It should be clear that, insofar as it promotes better academic outcomes and increased economic opportunity, expanded access to language learning programs is beneficial to students, schools, and communities alike.

To promote higher rates of multilingualism, schools across the country are tasked with developing innovative solutions to ensure every student, regardless of location or socioeconomic status, is given the opportunity to learn another language. In light of research that suggests they are among the most effective approaches to teaching foreign language and promoting high language retention rates, a growing number of U.S. schools are investing in language immersion programs.

Of course, building, implementing, and supporting an effective foreign language immersion program comes with a slew of challenges. It requires schools to employ qualified teachers, build robust curricula, and guarantee the continual development and support of their programs. Ultimately, securing sufficient resources is the first step in doing so — a particularly daunting challenge for many Ohio school districts.

Since state and federal funding is largely determined by student enrollment, it’s vital that schools accurately collect, store, and report this data. Unfortunately, many schools still perform these operations manually in messy spreadsheets that are prone to human error.

Conversely, Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform ensures every school’s data collection and reporting processes are streamlined for maximal efficiency and thoroughly audited for inconsistencies. With CheckPoint, Superintendents and District Treasurers can rest assured that their schools will receive every penny to which they’re entitled, enabling them to focus on what really matters: ensuring their students are poised for long-term success.

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