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Language Matters | Conversation with Dr. Kathleen Stein-Smith | Video and Transcript

Language Matters

A Conversation with

Dr. Kathleen Stein-Smith, Distinguished Lecturer and Author

with Dr. Debbie Barnard


What is the state of foreign language training in the United States? We wanted to know so we asked TNWAC Advisory Board Member and Tennessee Tech University Associate Professor of French, Debbie Barnard to talk to Dr. Kathleen Stein-Smith, noted authority and advocate on the subject and author of, “Multi-lingualism as a Global Competency: Skills for a 21st Century World.”

The answer? About twenty percent of students in America are studying or learning a language according to Stein-Smith who says, “That’s very concerning,” adding, “That would mean a lot of Americans remain mono-lingual. Speaking only English. Understanding only English.

The number reflects a decline in foreign language education. Stein-Smith says the decline isn’t attributable to educators who she says are “dedicated and professional,” but rather to the lack of opportunity. “Foreign language programs have decreased in number significantly in our middle schools and most dramatically in our public schools,” she said, “The figures are really frightening.”

Tempted to ask, “So, what?”

The impact is a population ill-prepared to deal with an increasingly interdependent world as well as the shortfall in preparing youth for global learning. Stein-Smith goes into detail in making the case for multi-lingual Americans to survive in international business, “Many languages are high in demand and across the country, and in all types of jobs. From entry-level positions to the executive suite.”

There are over 650,000 American jobs with foreign companies invested in the United States, she says. Stein-Smith acknowledges that not every job in those companies requires multi-lingualism but she says, “Many of those jobs are enhanced by knowledge of the mother tongue of the parent company. And opportunities open up.”

The country has always been dependent on foreign trade with the 2019 total trade figure topping $5.6 trillion. Trillion! Are Americans prepared to compete in this arena? Stein-Smith asks you to “imagine to what extent the ability to do business, to discuss, to make your point, to negotiate, would be enhanced if you could actually speak the language of your trading partner.”

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) reported that our companies in the international trade sector are twice as likely to lose business if they don’t have sufficient foreign language trained employees, and they are about 60% more likely to have that shortage. The ACTFL study also said: 25% of U.S. employers reported losing business due to lack of foreign language skills and more than half said the demand is increasing.

Stein-Smith said, “ We think the whole world speaks English.” That’s not the case. She thinks that’s an easy answer and it lets us off the hook. Stein-Smith, said, “If that’s the case then we don’t have to do anything further.” But that’s not the case.

Beyond business, why learn other languages? Learning a foreign language gives students a view into communities and cultures of “New Americans” among us and the world outside our region and country. The ACTFL says learning a language also: enhances problem solving, improves verbal and spatial abilities, improves memory function, enhances creative thinking and improves attitudes toward the target language and culture.

So, how do we address the decline? Stein-Smith acknowledges that the main focus is at the local level — schools and school boards — and encourages grassroots advocacy among people who see the important of foreign language training. She also notes the policymaking role at the state and Federal levels pointing out that “funding often comes along with recommendations and requirements.”

Everyone can be an advocate, Stein-Smith said. “You take the skills you have, the time you have, what funding you have available. Some people really take it to the next level and start petitions, and run for office, run for school boards. And others, like the rest of us, we do what we can with the talent we have and the skills we have and the time that we have.”

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THE MISSION of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Tennessee World Affairs Council is to promote international awareness, understanding and connections to enhance the region’s global stature and to prepare Tennesseans to thrive in our increasingly complex and connected world.

THE VISION of  the Tennessee World Affairs Council is a well-informed community that thinks critically about the world and the impact of global events.