Languages in Trouble

By Davey Young at A.C.E.

Last Friday, the 13th of March, the Seattle Times grimly reported that “foreign-language study is taking a big hit this year at the state’s community colleges and universities, as those institutions scramble to save money in the face of state budget cuts”. My heart immediately sank. In my opinion, foreign language programs are fundamental for the promotion of globalization and global awareness. Multilingualism ensures flexibility in international business spheres and creates opportunities that would otherwise pass by unseen. That is not to mention the intrinsic, holistic personal benefits of learning a foreign language.

The Times article later paraphrases Bob Stacey, the UW’s divisional dean of arts and humanities, as saying that that University’s plans to cut foreign language programs were in the works before the state budget cuts came down. However Stacey also claims that the cuts, which mostly affect the larger language programs like Spanish, are intended to preserve the wide range of languages offered at UW. While this may be preferable to cutting entire languages from the University’s offerings, fewer seats in languages of international import can still be detrimental. Similar cuts are being made at dozens of other state and community institutions.

In addition to the direct affects of funding cuts, entire languages are at risk as a result of globalization. This risk has less to do with the economic downturn and more to do with the fact that the process of globalization has encroached upon indigenous groups, endangering their cultures and facilitating the demise of their mother tongues. Yesterday morning I heard an interview on KUOW with Greg Anderson, the Director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Oregon. He discussed the peril which hundreds of languages face: that of complete extinction as their only guardians, the last native speakers, die out, and their progeny are subsumed by a larger socio-linguistic culture. The Living Tongues website warns that half of the world’s spoken language may be lost in the next hundred years. The Institute’s mission is “to promote the documentation, maintenance, preservation, and revitalization of endangered languages worldwide through linguist-aided, community-driven multi-media language documentation projects”. To learn more about Living Tongues or make a donation, visit

One Comment on “Languages in Trouble

  1. This interest in foreign languages is fortunately up in my area here in the South Puget Sound area of Thurston County. Here is an article that was recently printed in The Olympian.

    Schools report resurgence of foreign-language courses
    Children from kindergarten to sixth grade attend Spanish class
    By Venice Buhain | The Olympian • Published March 16, 2009

    TUMWATER – Black Lake Elementary School third-grader Garrett Jones thanked language teacher Rita Jean and held out his hand to receive a certificate, but teacher Jean waited patiently for the magic word.

    “Eh, Salvador?” she asked, using his Spanish classroom nickname.

    “Oh, uh, gracias!” Garrett responded.

    Last week, Garrett and others in kindergarten through sixth grade at Black Lake Elementary finished up six weeks of basic Spanish language instruction that was offered at the school.

    About 60 students — more than 10 percent of the student body — signed up for the after- and before-school program. Nicole Mercier, coordinator for ACE World Language Programs, said the Black Lake program had one of the highest turnouts for an elementary school language program offered by ACE in several years.

    Mercier said that the response shows a resurgence of interest in foreign-language programs for elementary school students. Mercier said Lydia Hawk Elementary School in Lacey also hosted a North Thurston Public Schools districtwide after-school class that introduced students to several languages.

    Parent Aurora Shackell, the Black Lake PTA coordinator, said the big response from families meant that several classes were added. Shackell said that many of the parents were interested in continuing the after-school program next year and several have signed up to continue the lessons for the next six weeks.

    “A lot of parents have wanted it for a while,” Shackell said.

    Garrett’s mom, Stephanie Jones, said foreign language was so important to the family that the family first enrolled him as a transfer student in Evergreen Elementary School in Shelton, a bilingual school. They stopped when the wintertime commute from Tumwater was too much.

    “I personally feel that the U.S. is behind in (teaching) foreign language, and we will not be able to compete for jobs globally or locally,” Jones said.

    Jones, who has one grown son fluent in Spanish and another fluent in American Sign Language, also said children in younger grades have an easier time learning foreign languages than if they start in high school or as adults.

    Teacher Rita Jean and the other Spanish teachers eschew grammar and rote lessons in favor of vocabulary games and catchy songs. The method trains students in hearing the sounds and accent of the Spanish language, so that students gradually acquire some of the vocabulary and common phrases.

    The students also call each other by Spanish names in class, Jean said.

    “They also get the hang of the accent,” she said. “They learn through play and songs.”

    “It’s conversational and it’s also active,” Jean said.

    “The hope is that by the time they take a real Spanish class, they do have a good accent when they are in high school. It won’t be ‘Americano,’ ” she said.

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