If you haven’t yet read Amelia Friedman’s article, America’s Lacking Language Skills, stop what you’re doing, and remedy that straight away. Friedman captures well the many challenges that face administrators, educators, and parents who want to help students succeed in language-learning, while situating those (often) local and state level challenges within a broader “global war for talent.” Compared to much of the world, the United States is in danger of falling behind because we simply aren’t prioritizing language acquisition.
Last week, add.a.lingua co-founder Stacey Vanden Bosch caught up with Amelia Friedman, the self-proclaimed language nerd and founder of Student Language Exchange, to learn a bit more of her story, including how she developed a love of language and what motivated her to become a social entrepreneur. They also explored where language education is headed in the U.S.
We hope you enjoy the interview, and feel free to pose your own question to Stacey or Amelia in the comments
So why do you feel strongly about language learning…a personal story perhaps?
Like many people, I had mixed language-learning experiences growing up. Some of my teachers were out-of-this-world amazing, and some of them were… less amazing. When I got to college, I started learning Portuguese from an absolutely incredible professor, and my world fell open before me. I learned so much about myself and my cultural assumptions— I could feel myself growing as a human being. Because of that amazing experience, I kept learning languages. I started studying French, then Polish, then ASL, then Bengali…. I felt like I was learning so much, so quickly, and (because of my language skills) I was presented with so many more opportunities. Learning languages added so much richness and vibrancy to my life. I caught the language bug, and now I’m doing what I can to make it contagious!
What encouragement would you give to the middle school or high school student who’s attended a primary immersion education program but is wondering whether doing the hard work of continuing is worth it?
Learning a language gives you an edge— multilingual people have an advantage over their peers cognitively, socially, and in the workplace.
The number of employers searching for candidates with bilingual skills has steadily increased in the past several years. Researchers have found benefits in hiring, salary, and promotion opportunities. Every language opens new markets and new communities. Languages are keys to opportunity. The more you collect, the more doors you can unlock, both personally and professionally. If you have a strong foundation already, it’d be a shame to let those keys rust.
Explain to our readers what Student Language Exchange is, and what motivated you to create this organization?
When I was in college, I decided I wanted to learn Bengali. When I asked about resources through the school or online, people seemed confused. Why would you want to learn Bengali? they asked.
Well, Bengali is actually the seventh most widely spoken language in the world with almost three times as many native speakers as French or German. It’s a wildly important language in international business, government, and social change. But for some reason, many Americans see it as useless. In fact, for every one person studying Bengali in a university, there are over 3,000 studying French.
I realized that many of the most spoken languages worldwide— Javanese, Lahnda, Telugu, Malay— are completely missing from academic curricula. And that’s not just building a language deficit, but a cultural one as well. The next generation of Americans is not being equipped with the cultural and linguistic tools they need to be full collaborators on the international stage. That’s a problem and an urgent one.
In an attempt to increase language learning across the board, but especially in these often-forgotten languages, I founded the Student Language Exchange. At SLE, we harness an underutilized resource on college campuses— the knowledge, experience, and social reach of international students. By mobilizing these students to run semester-long, not-for-credit courses introducing groups of their peers to their language and culture, we fill gaps in curricula and prepare students to build collaborative solutions to the world’s most pressing social, economic, political, and environmental challenges. We have run programs in over thirty languages (Bengali, Swahili, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole) at Brandeis, Brown, Columbia, Tufts, Williams, and Vassar. Program graduates have started impactful social enterprises, launched advocacy programs, built online or in-person language learning communities, conducted innovative research projects in the region, and more.
Through peer-to-peer relationships, we aim to expand global awareness, heighten cultural sensitivity, and graduate students that are prepared and eager to engage with often overlooked cultures, whether it be through further academic study, related professional opportunities, or social justice work in these regions.
If any of our readers would like to partner with SLE on their campus, what’s the first step they should take?
Reach out to us! We’re always excited to connect with fellow language enthusiasts. If you’re based in DC, come by the offices. If you’re a student or faculty member at one of our current campuses or are interested in bringing SLE to your institution, give us a shout. We’re very accessible.
How might graduates of K-12 immersion program participate in SLE?
It depends: If you attend one of our current SLE institutions, you can sign up for a course or get involved as a campus volunteer. For students at other colleges, we’re always looking for writers for the Student Language Examiner. And, if you want to bring SLE to your campus, we’d love to have that conversation. Again, we’re very open to having that initial phone call, so reach out if you have any questions.
As you wrapped up Language Advocacy Day, did you leave encouraged or discouraged about the state of language education in the U.S.?
That’s a hard question to answer. I’m humbled to be part of such a passionate, informed, articulate community of language advocates. The argument for language education (especially dual language immersion) is exceptionally strong, and initiatives like ACTFL’s Lead with Languages hold a great deal of promise. That said, funding for language education has been steadily falling. Academic programs are being cut every year. All in all, language education has been deprioritized when it comes to funding appropriations at all levels. If we want to see language education thrive, we need to push our principals, deans, superintendents, state delegates, and federal congressmen to make language education a priority. Our language deficit is immense; we can’t wait another generation to tackle it.
Given the challenges you outlined at the macro and micro level, where do you see language education headed in the next 5-10 years?
Not to be dismal, but I don’t see things changing much apart from huge efforts to advocate and lobby for language education. Today, only 7 in 100 college students study a language— and that number has been dropping. To further exacerbate the problem, the vast majority of language students are studying one of three languages: Spanish, French, or German. Cumulatively, those languages and English are spoken natively by less than 13% of the global population. Translation? We aren’t educating our students to communicate with the other 87% of people sharing our planet.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve studied French and German. I’m Uruguayan. I think all languages are valid and immensely important. But if we want to be globally competitive, we need to increase language-learning across the board, not only in the Western languages that currently dominate our language-learning ecosystem.
In my ideal world, we would see all K-12 programs adopt dual language immersion— it’s affordable, it leads to better outcomes across the board, and it doesn’t take time from other subjects. And in that world, different schools would offer different languages, thereby graduating a more well-rounded generation of Americans.
If you could leave language education advocates (particularly teacher and parents of immersion students) with one piece of advice or encouragement, what would it be?
It takes a village. If we want language education to be a priority, we need to come together as vocal advocates and make it one. An overwhelming majority of U.S. adults say that children should learn a language before leaving high school, and that languages are just as important as math and science. So, we do have allies waiting in the woodwork. They’re just waiting for someone— at their school, in their city council, or at their community organization— to begin the conversation. So, my piece of advice would be this: Say something. You won’t be alone.