Policy and Planning
The NFLC’s founding mission is to help our nation meet its language needs, both domestic and international. We carry out that mission in a variety of ways that are described in our projects.
NFLC encourages the development of policies and practices at national, state, and local levels that address our nation’s expanding need for linguistic and cultural competence. Specifically, the US needs a workforce that includes many thousands of people who are proficient and literate in English and one or more other languages. Today, only about 10% of our population is functionally bi-literate – far fewer than is the case in other industrialized and emerging nations.
Multiple federal agencies report increasingly severe shortages in positions that require the use of a language in addition to English: these shortages are of longstanding and are only becoming more severe with globalization. US corporations are competing for market share around the globe: they must understand the local languages and cultures of the people they want to buy US products and services, and they must be able to work effectively with business partners around the world. Communication technologies have a democratizing effect on language use: at some point, if not already, there will be more content on the Internet in other languages than there is in English.
If the US wants to understand our interconnected world and continue to play a leadership role, we need to expand our capacity to understand the languages in which the world’s citizens communicate.
What solutions does the NFLC promote?
For the long term:
Any long-term solution to the shortage of language skills must include changes in US public education. In Europe and other industrialized nations – including all the nations whose public schools produce higher-achieving students than the US—a multi-year sequence of foreign language study is mandatory, beginning no later than 4th grade in Europe and earlier in China and Singapore. Recent studies of the cognitive benefits of early bilingualism associate early learning of a second language with enhanced test scores, persistence in school, and critical thinking skills. Along with more space in the curriculum, language study in US schools must be highly effective, proficiency-oriented programs leading to usable language skills. Through its STARTALK program, NFLC is pressing for high-quality teacher preparation and professional development as the key to effective programs.
Because the US education system produces relatively small numbers of professionally-proficient graduates in the languages most needed, current US capacity in many (most) languages relies heavily on Americans who immigrated to the US, and in some cases children of immigrants. The 10% of our population that is bilingual is (fact check) primarily composed of English-proficient immigrants. In the near term, we must capitalize on this asset in two ways: first, we must promote excellent ESL programs in our schools for children of immigrants, while also providing these children the opportunity to become literate in their family’s language of origin. Without a school-based program, most children of immigrants who arrive in the US relatively early, or are born in the US, will not develop their family’s language to a professionally useful level. Most immigrant parents are understandably focused on seeing that their children learn English well – an essential key to success in US society. Expanded programs for “heritage” (family-language) learners can build bi-literacy cost-effectively. Dual immersion programs, where possible, are excellent models for cost-effective development of bi-literacy among children from both English-speaking families and from families that speak another language in the home.
At college and university level, changes are needed as well. A preponderance of college students major in a professional field, such as management or engineering (data source). Only a few such programs emphasize or require language skills or a study abroad experience. The percentage of college students enrolled in language study is meager in light of limited prior study in high school (2 years on average).
The NFLC promotes policies that increase US capacity in the world’s languages by increasing the proportion of Americans who are bi-literate in English and another world language.
- K-12 education
- Higher education
- Adult and professional education
- Immigration policy and tapping immigrant resources
- Translation and interpreting education
- Access to language services