Foreign Language Learning and Study Abroad are Stronger Together

April 15, 2010

By Janice Mulholland

An article published yesterday by the Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the recent trend of increases in U.S. students studying Arabic and other languages deemed by the federal government to be "critical foreign languages." The Chronicle reports that resources provided by the federal government to colleges and universities in the past decade have strengthened programs in Arabic and other languages critical to the national security and economy of the United States.

According to the article, "[t]hat effort has increased the number of undergraduates whose first major was Arabic from 13 in 2002-3 to 57 in 2007-8" (according to the Digest of Education Statistics published by the U.S. Department of Education). The Modern Language Association also reports that "the number of students taking Arabic courses nearly doubled, to 24,000, between 2002 and 2006." This trend is also reported in other critical languages. For example, "undergraduate degrees in Chinese rose from 190 to 289 between 2002-3 and 2007-8, and in Korean from five to 15."

However, there is some concern that this uptick in students learning critical languages does not equate to the number of students with the cultural competencies necessary to be proficient in those languages. Roger Allen, chair of the Near Eastern languages and civilizations department at the University of Pennsylvania, said in the article that "he is concerned that students will focus on learning languages while neglecting vital cultural context" and that "study-abroad programs could help alleviate that problem."

That makes sense to me. I started learning German when I was 12, yet it wasn't until I studied abroad in Germany as a sophomore in college that I actually felt comfortable carrying on a basic conversation in the language and began to understand the cultural idiosyncrasies that surround the language. I'm sure many of you who speak another language have had similar experiences. It seems to me that an immersion experience – for lack of a better term - would be even more critical in countries and regions around the world where the cultural differences are much starker than between the U.S. and Germany.

This points to something NAFSA has been promoting for several years now: a greater national investment in the global education of U.S. students. This is not to say that more federal investment is not needed in foreign language education – because it is – but that such investments need to be part of an overarching national strategy to ensure that our college graduates have the global skills necessary to be successful in whatever arena they graduate into.

For years, NAFSA has been advocating that the opportunity to study abroad be available to all students. I believe this is particularly important for students seeking proficiency in another language. Click here to learn more about a national initiative NAFSA is supporting to expand study abroad. This initiative complements the investment the federal government is already making to increase foreign language learning.


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