Skills for the 21st Century

“American companies lose an estimated 2 billion dollars a year due to inadequate cross-cultural guidance for their employees in multicultural situations.”“Compared to their counterparts from universities in other parts of the world, U.S. students are ‘strong technically’ but ‘shortchanged’ in cross-cultural experience and linguistically deprived.”

Looking for 21st century skills for our students? Don’t forget world languages!
Nicole Naditz, NBCT
Bella Vista High School                 
Advocacy Chair, California Language Teachers’ Association

We’re hearing a lot in education about “21st century skills.” Just what are these skills? The definition depends upon whom you ask. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills provides one framework that includes core content areas, such as English, world languages (note that “world language” is listed as a core content area by the Partnership as well as by NCLB), social sciences and math, among others. In addition to their list of core content areas, the Partnership goes on to add other skills to the list of those that the 21st century citizen will need—skills that are not taught through textbooks, but rather through rigorous and authentic learning experiences within and beyond the classroom. These include cross-curricular skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and media literacy; and additional traits, such as leadership and collaboration. There is one specific content area that has received the attention of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, as well as numerous numerous educational authors and researchers: world language education.  Beyond all of the data from decades of research showing a correlation between world language study and increased academic achievement, higher standardized test scores, and improved critical thinking and problem solving skills, world language proficiency is desperately needed in business and industry, including all of the careers considered part of “career and technical education” programs. According to the Partnership, as well as authors such as Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Tony Wagner, and Yong Zhao, today’s students—regardless of career or college aspirations—need to be able to communicate in more than one language in order to help the businesses for whom they work be poised to take advantage of international opportunities and do business in their own communities.  World language programs also provide one of the only avenues for students to explore the diverse perspectives that shape how others in the word respond to situations within and beyond their communities. In other words, world language proficiency (not just seat time) must be a key component in any program claiming to prepare 21st century citizens  for their future roles in society.As part of their arguments for upgrading the amount and quality of world language education offered to our students, each of the authors cites, among other data, information from a report prepared by the Committee for Economic Development, which is a non-profit, non-partisan, business-led public policy organization. Membership is made up of approximately 200 senior corporate executives and university leaders who lead CED’s research and outreach efforts. These excerpts from their 2006 report highlight the imperative to augment our world language offerings for all students:

  • “… our education system must be strengthened to increase the foreign language skills and cultural awareness of our students. America’s continued role as a global leader will depend on our students’ abilities to interact with the world community both inside and outside our borders.”
  • “Many American students lack sufficient knowledge about other world regions, languages and cultures and as a result are likely to be unprepared to compete and lead in a global work environment.” 
  • “Seventy-seven percent of the public believes that high school programs in the United States are not adequately preparing students to understand current international affairs.”
  • “Compared to their counterparts from universities in other parts of the world, U.S. students are ‘strong technically’ but ‘shortchanged’ in cross-cultural experience and linguistically deprived.”

World languages are a 21st century skill, and CED is not the only group to have noticed. Here is more evidence that our society and economy are dependent on increasing the number of citizens who are proficient in world languages and culture: 

  • A survey of American businesses operating oversees conducted by the Modern Language Association found that many companies give preference to candidates with foreign language skills when hiring new management personnel, provided other business experience and abilities are equal.
  • Four out of five new jobs in the united States are created as a result of foreign trade, according to the National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Language. 
  • Each year, 200,000 Americans lose out on jobs with business because they don’t know another language, according to Edward Trimnell, author of Why you need a foreign language and how to learn one.
  • In their 2008 report called, “Putting the World into World-Class Education,” The Council of Chief State School Officers specifically recommends that high school graduation requirements be redefined “to include global knowledge and skills. […] Requirements should include world languages and assessment of international knowledge and skills across the curriculum.”
  • In his book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, Yong Zhao  says that  “American companies lose an estimated 2 billion dollars a year due to inadequate cross-cultural guidance for their employees in multicultural situations.”  and “…nearly 30 percent of the companies believed they had failed to exploit fully their international business opportunities due to insufficient personnel with international skills.”  As a result, Zhao states that “ An essential ingredient of global competence is foreign language proficiency and a deep understanding of other cultures.”

Language proficiency gives our students an open door to the world. If we aren’t providing language and cultural education to our students, are we really preparing them to assume roles in the global society they are inheriting? Can we claim to graduate students with a full complement of 21st century skills if they can’t communicate in the languages their future employers need? What about the languages needed by our community organizations? Or those needed during these times of increased concern for national security? How are preparing our students to interact in positive and productive ways with those from cultures different from their own? Clearly, continuing the status quo of “language education for some….and not until high school” is not an option. Speak up for language education in your communities. Share the information in this article with your PTA/PTO, your school board, and  your site administration and counselors.