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The Languages We’re Learning Now

No jobs at home? Looking abroad? We’ll look at the languages Americans are studying today. What’s hot, what’s not and where they lead.

In this Feb. 15, 2013 photograph, Myrtle Hall IV Elementary School teacher Gabrielle Wooden, left, and Camilyn Anderson, 7, lead their first grade class in a live action Spanish class in Clarksdale, Miss. Students attend a language immersion magnet school where Spanish is taught. (AP)

In this Feb. 15, 2013 photograph, Myrtle Hall IV Elementary School teacher Gabrielle Wooden, left, and Camilyn Anderson, 7, lead their first grade class in a live action Spanish class in Clarksdale, Miss. Students attend a language immersion magnet school where Spanish is taught. (AP)

To put it mildly, Americans have never been the world’s greatest foreign language learners.  Far from it.  We’ve had a big country of English speakers and a native tongue that just kept spreading around the world.  But the language map of this big, globalized planet is still a very diverse one.  And intrepid Americans still keep diving in to learn.  Japanese had its heyday.  Russian.  Arabic after 9/11.  Now Chinese.  And of course, Spanish all over this country.  This hour On Point:  Foreign language learning in the USA now.  What’s hot, what’s not, and where it leads.

– Tom Ashbrook



Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Michael Geisler, vice president for language schools, schools abroad and graduate schools at Middlebury College. Professor in lingustics and languages and professor of German.

John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an international job placement consulting firm. (@ChallengerGray)

Nicole Wilson, vice president of language learning products at Rosetta Stone.

Clive Thompson, Contributing editor at WIRED. Author of: “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For the Better.” (@pomeranian99)

From Tom’s Reading List

Forbes: America’s Foreign Language Deficit –More and more students and their parents understand the need to communicate with friends and foes in other countries, and not just on our terms.  Demand for and enrollment in foreign language courses is at its highest level since 1968.  At public K-12 schools, course enrollment in 2007-2008 reached 8.9 million individuals, about 18.5 percent of all students; between 1995 and 2009, it increased 47.8 percent at colleges and universities.

Chronicle of Higher Education: In New Partnership, James Madison U. Offers Credit for Online Rosetta Stone Course — “With less fanfare, a similar deal was recently signed between James Madison University and the language-learning company Rosetta Stone. The public university in Virginia will grant credit to online-only students who complete a 16-week introductory conversational Spanish course produced and largely managed by Rosetta Stone, which sells one of the world’s most popular language-learning programs.”

Business Insider: The 10 Easiest Foreign Languages For English Speakers To Learn –”Frisian is native to Friesland in the Netherlands, and is spoken by fewer than half a million people. Still, it is English’s closest sibling, uniquely connected in the tiny linguistic category of North Sea Germanic languages.”

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  • alsordi

    Maybe the discussion should include whether English should continue to be recognized as the international language of commerce.

    Many wars, occupations, backing of dictatorships and civil wars, exploitation and genocides have been carried out by English speakers. Alternatively, the Chinese have been expanding their global influence without firing a shot, or even threatening to do so….not a Chinese uniform or a battleship in site.

    • J__o__h__n

      The Chinese don’t have clean hands either. How many dictators are they supporting to keep their raw materials in supply?

      • alsordi

        The Chinese are not killing civilians with drones to get their rare earth materials. They are not destroying populations, countries, infrastructure, cultures to get their oil.

        The Chinese may have some dirt on their hands, but the US and Britain have very bloody hands.

        • BHA_in_Vermont

          That might be because they produce 130,000 metric tons of the total 133,600 tons of REE. No need to wrest the goods from foreigners or protect the sources to ensure a steady supply.

          India is second with 2,700.

    • Peter_Akuleyev

      Apparently you have never heard of Tibet or Xinjiang, not to mention the 40 million people killed by the Communists under Mao. Then there is the little matter of the Korean War, fought mostly by Chinese troops on the Northern side, China’s attack on Vietnam in 1979, China’s armed skirmishes with the USSR in the 1960s, China’s continued blustering and military posturing towards Japan, South Korea and Vietnam about various uninhabited rocks in the Pacific, etc. I also don’t recall Chinese speakers starting Amnesty International or any other international human rights organization.

  • J__o__h__n

    Any actual data or just anecdotes from someone who has a financial interest in making sure people learn languages?

  • Jon

    in this global economy, understanding other cultures is the ultimate key for business communication. language is the first step toward that direction. focusing only on diplomacy and espionage is narrow minded.

  • Markus6

    Everyone has their favorite crisis. An hour ago, it was heroin, now it’s that americans don’t speak enough languages. And it always results in a need for more funding.

    It’s a problem, but how much of a problem and for whom. I only speak English and work internationally with Europeans, Indians, Pakistanis, Saudis, lots of others, even Canadians. With a few exceptions, I almost never have a problem. But I don’t like to project my situation too broadly.

    So, it may be a problem, but it may be centered on specific industries and roles in those industries.And from my limited perspective, the problem is shrinking, not growing.

    • Adam Stryker

      Either you didn’t listen to the whole segment or you weren’t able to get the supporting details. Real business gets done in informal situations: on the golf course, on the tennis court, in the pubs. Also, when you make the effort to learn your client’s culture and language. Traveling is enhanced even more by language study. Monolingualism is not a virtue.
      It has been said that many other cultures may speak English but NOT when they’re talking about us.

      More importantly, why does every subject have to serve a corporate business agenda? Why don’t we recognize that there are many rationale for learning. Languages help us enjoy and appreciate the entire planet; improve diplomatic relations; gain insight into one’s own culture and language; communicate, collaborate and solve problems with people across the world; gain new perspectives on world events or phenomena…

      The same argument can be made for getting by without advanced mathematics and sciences. So Markus6 are you advocating we stop teaching math and science too? SMH

  • skelly74

    Children should focus on mastering the English language and expand their vocabulary to the fullest extent. Studies have shown that vocabulary is the best indicator of success. Master your own language first.

    If you can comprehend the complete language of one form, you can hire a translator to do your bidding. Become a specialist.

    • closetothetruth

      those must be some studies–”the best” and all. especially given the many studies that show knowing more than one language is highly correlated with “success” of many different kinds. how about some citations to those studies?

      • skelly74

        Sure. Please take a look at the Johnson O’Connor research center.

      • longfeather

        What these type of studies ignore is that vocabulary includes gestures and culture. We have a lot of know-it-all Virginians that are very educated but are ‘inconvenienced’ by even having to overhear a foreign language in their own neighborhoods. This type of snobbishness is like contagious ignorance in that it is passed down thru the generations.

        • skelly74

          I’m not referring to tolerance of another language. Generally speaking, the education system and the laws are based on the English language. The more proficient you are of the language and the greater your vocabulary, the more you will be able to absorb and comprehend your own culture and system. How can a person obtain knowledge of a subject if they don’t even understand terminology?

    • skelly74

      Be truthful to yourself when you ask the question: would I be better prepared for success if I had a complete grasp of the English language with a superior vocabulary or if I could read, write, and speak (foreign language).

  • gailparenteau

    Check out “Raising Global Children” by Stacie Berdan. It’s an informative book with practical advice for parents, students and teachers about how to prepare for the global culture. I found this of great interest to my children who are thinking about career paths for their future.

  • Dab200

    “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” is a famous quote attributed to the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and it fits perfectly into the topic of today’s program. I would also add another one: “Different languages are different worlds and the great diversity of natural languages on the planet should be seen as a treasure house of tools for thinking in other ways”. I can’t understand anyone not wishing to explore that. I would like to highly recommend a book ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear’ by David Bellos who addresses the future problem of the lack of multilingual individuals.

    • J__o__h__n

      Most things are translated. How proficient would one have to get to master another language to read it well enough to get more value than reading the translation. How many languages would one need to master to not be limited?

      • Dab200

        Do you speak any other language? It’s difficult to explain to someone limited to one language only. The Italians have a saying: ‘Traduttore è traditore’ (‘a translator is a traitor’) and you can easily understand it once you speak more that one language.
        Check the book I recommended to open your horizons.
        And yes, you need to become moderately proficient.
        BTW, I am proficient in 3 languages and have a basic knowledge of 2 others.

        • J__o__h__n

          I took Spanish in high school which didn’t really take. I found Latin interesting, but a bit of a chore. I’d rather read many books translated into English than devote the time to learn another language at the level needed to get more out of reading the original rather than the translation.

          • Dab200

            English is an extremely rich language with an enormous vocabulary the plethora of which was taken from many other languages like Latin, Greek, Arabic, German. Knowledge of that enhances your understanding, accelerates vocabulary learning by making etymological connections and word associations easier. But it’s a free country and everyone choses how to spend ones time.

  • J__o__h__n

    I took four semesters of Latin in college but it didn’t result in me being Pope.

    • vito33

      What went wrong??

      • J__o__h__n

        The Cardinals discriminated against atheists.

        • BHA_in_Vermont

          Geez, miss ONE little item on the job description and you are out ;)

  • Mica

    My dad spoke 9 languages, my mom speaks 6, but they only spoke English to us. Still, I have studied at least a dozen languages and speak Spanish, Hebrew, French, Italian and English. I am currently studying Polish because I started an organization that organizes trips to Poland. I did not want to deprive my kids of learning languages at a young age and they used to speak Hebrew, Russian and English, though they lost the Russian when we moved back to the States from Israel. I hope it is somewhere in their brains though!

    Even knowing one word in another language can bring a smile to someone’s face. I know two words in Amharic and when I meet an Ethiopian they are so surprised and pleased to hear me say thank you in their native tongue.
    Leora in Lexington

    • Dab200

      What kind of trips to Poland do you organize?

  • rich4321

    When I was in Europe, I was so amazed that almost everyone I met, can speak at least two languages fluently some can speak as many as 10 languages! My thought is so much of the problems in this world is because of miscommunication, thus misunderstanding. I wish the American school will offer more language learning.

    • BHA_in_Vermont

      What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages?
      - Bilingual
      What do you call someone who speaks more than 2 languages?
      - Multilingual
      What do you call someone who speaks only 1 language?

      There is some truth to that old joke.

      • skelly74

        That’s why they call it the United States of America. I don’t travel from NH to Maine and suddenly speak Mainian. Or do I?

        But you do travel from Germany where they speak German and go to the Czech Republic and guess what they speak.?

  • gregghr

    American schools have got to stop “teaching to the test” and removing critical subjects from curricula in order to make sure the test scores are high and they can achieve their bonuses. There has never been perpetrated on our children and our education system a greater disservice. If you want to get better scores on standard tests, teach foreign languages. It opens up new neural pathways in the brain and can actually help kids learn complex subjects more easily.

  • viacarrozza

    This is for the caller who was looking for the best adult language learning tool. PC Mag gave the Rocket Languages program the highest rating for online sources. After having many false starts over the years learning Italian and French, I’m having solid success with this program. The company tries to sell you the higher levels of the language when you sign up but you can ignore this and buy just the first level. I think it’s $69 for the program (not bad). I have the Italian and the French and I really love the way it works…better than Rosetta Stone.

  • SavvySurferGirl7

    I learned Spanish at the age of 8 when my family moved to Puerto Rico, which helped tremendously when I later wanted to learn French and Italian. In my 30s I moved to Rome, and because I had already spent so much time studying the language, I arrived nearly fluent. The year and a half spent in the ancient neighborhood of Trastevere was the most wonderful experience of my life, and my fluency and nearly native-sounding accent never failed to amaze the Italians I met. They assumed I was Spanish, Portuguese, South American–anything but a US national. I loved fooling them and subverting their expectations about xenophobic, jingoistic “ugly Americans.” And unlike my friends who visited me but did not speak Italian, I never got hassled by Roman men on the street; they just assumed I was Roman and left me alone!

  • J__o__h__n

    Spock spoke English so the translator was not needed. However, Shakespeare is better in the original Klingon.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    Given only 9 million people worldwide speak Hebrew and the vast majority of them live in Israel (6 million Jewish and 1 million Hebrew fluent Arab Israelis), I can’t see Hebrew being on anyone’s short list for a second language unless they plan to live in Israel or have close ties to other speakers of Hebrew.

  • nostoppingprogress

    Every American school should teach Spanish and Chinese. Together with English, that is 2/3 population on Earth. We need to teach this ages 0-5–America has it all backwards. Study abroad should be mandatory in high school, college at least. This has huge biz and cultural value and will really open eyes of Americans.

    • BHA_in_Vermont

      Who pays for this study abroad? Schools have enough trouble getting sufficient money to do their jobs now.

    • J__o__h__n

      I agree there is a value in offering other languages, but forcing people who aren’t naturally good at it (and most likely will not achieve any mastery) isn’t a good use of educational resources and certainly shouldn’t be mandatory.

    • Loren Prince

      Age 8-10 is a key time for language learners. That would be between 3rd and 5th grade. It is noted that bilingual language learners struggle in grades K thru 5 versus straight English-only learners, but once those bilingual students reach 6th grade their test scores, grades, etc. match and most often beat English-only students. Bilingual education requires dedication from school districts, parents, students, and teachers.

      • olderworker

        I actually was made to take German in grades 3-5, and do not remember a word of it! (I went to Chicago public schools, and for some reason, they decided we should all learn German)

  • rich4321

    I am totally for Google translate. But there is a lot more in human communications in real time, such as the speakers’ body language and facial expressions. A joke might sound mean when one doesn’t see the demeanor of the speaker. Why do you think we have favicon for emails? I love technologies, but technologies just simply replace human to human communication.

  • Markus6

    The speaker is right about us getting over what I call an inferiority complex re. languages. Europeans speak multiple languages because they have to and multiple languages are all around them, not because we’re xenophobic, stubborn or dumb.

    • BHA_in_Vermont

      True. I have a friend who grew up in communist Poland. They were required to learn Russian and German in addition to Polish.

      I don’t know that it is still true with the Iron Curtain in tatters and Poland a self governing country without the Hammer and Sickle over their heads.

      • Dab200

        That is not exactly correct. German was never an obligatory language!. From grade 5th we used to have obligatory Russian language in Polish schools. In 9th grade, secondary school, you had to choose an additional language of your choice. Most popular was English then French and German, in some places Spanish or Italian – a lot depended on availability of teachers.
        After the transformation English almost completely replaced Russian but it took a while. At the time of the change, in 1990, when I was heading back to Poland to lead in this transition, there were 20,000 of teachers of Russian in Poland but less than 1000 teachers of English. I know it very well as I was part of the process of change. Three-year Language Colleges were established to teach language but also methodology of teaching, to train teachers, retrain Russian teachers to teach other languages. Over 50 of those colleges were established with a goal of providing 20,000 teachers of English by the year 2000! And we did it! If you visit Poland nowadays almost all younger people speak English and many of them more that 2-3 foreign languages.
        Today English in taught in the 1st grade, by grade 5th you are required to add another language and 3rd in the Secondary school. By the way, out of this counting, and even in the older days Secondary schools often offered Latin and Greek in addition to the above system.

  • Loren Prince

    I speak Spanish at a conversational/intermediate level. I learned from a 6 week course at my university and then 6 months living in a Spanish speaking country (Guatemala). I am now a tutor to at risk youth in a low-income school; most of my students speak Spanish. My wife began learning Spanish in 8th grade and studied until her final semester in her undergraduate studies. She is a 3rd grade bilingual teacher at the same school where I tutor. I can easily say that we both got our jobs due to our skills in Spanish.
    I also remember a little of the French I learned in high school. I think my first experience with French helped me when I was learning Spanish.

  • Russell Ludwick

    After a recent trip to Costa Rica and the fact I live in California, I was recently inspired me to learn spanish. I didn’t want to pay for Rosetta stone or anything, but I found a great website/ipad app called Duolingo. After one month I have learned quite a bit and I would recommend it to anyone trying to learn spanish and doesn’t want to pay for it.

  • Dab200

    Russian is a so called phonetic language which means that it is really easy to learn to read it. You just need to learn the letters of the alphabet, their pronunciation, some combinations known as diphthongs and voila you can read Russian. By the same token you can learn to read other Slavic languages as well as Greek, Italian, Spanish, etc

  • Lee K. Riethmiller

    Tom, what the foreign language situation needs is a method for teaching multiple languages in a single language course. This is what we offer at Intercontinental Foreign Language Program in 
Cambridge Massachusetts (Union Square Somerville). You can
    take TriLingual 3, TetraLingual 4, PentaLingual 5, OctaLingual 8,
DecaLingual 10, DecaPentaLingual15, and so forth, up to
VentaLingual 20–you can choose your own combination, depending on your interest or passion. We must build “language personalities” inside each person which are interactivized, so that the speaker may move easily and systematically from one language to another. Simultaneous language learning is the way to go. Check it out at web site: tongues interactive. com

    There are no limits to your language learning capacity.


Lee K. Riethmiller, Director and Founder,

    Intercontinental Foreign Language Program @ Harvard Square

    • Prairie_W

      As someone who has learned and lived in several languages over a bunch of years, that sounds like heaven, Lee! “Language personalities” is a great way of describing how we are changed by languages and cultures. For the better, in my experience.

  • Yuliya

    there are lots of free good tutorials to learn Russian on youtube, so learn away: )

  • Florian Miyagi

    yes, but don’t you agree that the way you speak reflects on the way you are percieved. I am studying Myanma in Myanmar at the moment and my american co students never seize to amaze me by how they treat their own language (i am german). the only adjectives in use, are “great” and “awesome”. also “like” is added into every sentence. “that’s like awesome.” though they come from famous private universities , they sound like a bunch of idiots. what i enjoy about te english language ist the vast amount of adjectives it has. memorizing list of vocabulary would definately help them…

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