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Americans wistful for foreign language in high school

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: June 20, 2007

Don't remember much of the French you took in high school? You're not alone.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans wish they'd taken more foreign language instruction while they were in high school, according to a survey of 1,010 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

Adults are generally satisfied with the amount of mathematics and science they received, but the survey found a fairly widespread longing for more foreign language skills.

Americans are "at the bottom" of the world in terms of knowing foreign languages, according to Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

"There's an old joke: If you speak three languages you're tri-lingual. Speaking two languages makes you bi-lingual. But if you speak only one language, then you're an American," Lovejoy said.

While 64 percent said they had taken four years of math and 37 said they had taken four years of science, only 14 percent said they had taken four years of foreign language. Thirty percent said they hadn't taken any foreign language instruction.

"Foreign language is available to most, but not all schools. It is not a requirement in many schools. Often, when it is required, it's only for one or two years," Lovejoy said. "That's not enough. Foreign language really should be taught starting in elementary school if we are going to change our language culture."

The poll found that only 36 percent wished they had taken more math, 41 percent wished they had taken more science and 62 percent wished for more foreign language.

The gap is widening. People under 35 were more likely to have taken four years of math and four years of science, but were less likely to have taken four years of foreign language than older people.

Americans who went on to college were significantly more likely to have taken foreign language in high school. Only 17 percent of people with a college degree said they took no foreign language in high school.

The survey also contradicted the widely held notion that boys take significantly more math and science than do girls. Men and women respondents were virtually even. Thirty-eight percent of the men and 37 percent of the women said they had four years of science, while 65 percent of the women and 62 percent of the men said they had four years of math.

But women had a wide edge in foreign language, with 17 percent saying they had four years of foreign language, compared to 10 percent of the men.

The more foreign language instruction adults received, the more likely they are to say they've found it useful in their lives. Nearly half of people who took four years of language said they've found it to be "very useful" compared to less than a quarter of people who took only one year of language.

Overall, only 32 percent of all adults said they've found foreign language to be very useful, compared to 38 percent who thought high school science was very useful and 51 percent who thought high school math was very useful.

The survey was conducted by telephone May 6-27 among 1,010 adult residents of the United States who were selected at random. The survey was conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The survey has a margin of error of about 3 percent.