The Unchanging American Capacity in Languages Other Than English: Speaking and Learning Languages Other Than English, 2000–2008

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Abstract

We present results of 2006 and 2008 replications of the 2000 General Social Survey (GSS), which included nine questions on languages other than English (LOEs) spoken (Robinson, Rivers, & Brecht, 2006). In 2000, 26% claimed they could speak another language, with 10% saying they could speak it “very well.” In 2000, foreign language speakers were younger, graduate educated, and of “other” races, living in large cities. Spanish (51%), French (15%), and German (9%) were the most common LOEs spoken. More strikingly, we saw no change in the 10% of school learners of LOEs who claimed to speak the language “very well.” We examine the stubborn stability of these results in light of the investments made in LOE programs for national security purposes, and contrast these investments with countervailing pressures on the educational system that limit LOE programs. We note that the arguments for expanding LOE programs, such as language and national security, or the concept of a “world-class” well-rounded education, have at best an attenuated impact on U.S. capacity in LOEs. Potential directions for mobilizing the diverse stakeholders in LOEs are presented.

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