Compared to most Europeans, many Americans are pretty much monolingual. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was cited in Forbes two years ago that “only 18 percent of American reported” to speak another language other than English while 53 percent of Europeans can speak a second language. One of the reasons is that public and private school education in the U.S. has cut back teaching foreign languages. According to Forbes, the percentage of elementary schools that taught a foreign language dropped from 31 percent to 25 percent between 1997 to 2008. However, the lack of language diversity in the U.S. may change with a national foreign language contest that attempts to build endangered language awareness. The contest, which is called “Lift Off with Language,” is developed by The Student Language Exchange (SLE), a non-profit that is run by American college students.
The objective of SLE and its national contest is to “foster a dialogue around linguistic diversity on American college campuses” and to get people to talk about and be aware of less commonly taught and endangered languages, such as those of Native American origin. “Lift Off with Language” asks the question to the students, “What language do you want to learn next? Why?” The students are also asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years? How can language take you there?”
Students who enter the contest can submit an essay or a video that addresses these questions about any language, not just endangered ones. The contest started in mid-September and the deadline for submission is Oct. 15, 2014. Creativity and unusual languages (including Native American tongues) are encouraged.
“North America’s linguistic history is actually quite rich but rarely receives the attention it deserves from language policy and learning platform makers,” said Meredith Cicerchia, director of E-Learning and Communications at Lingua.ly, via an online interview with Guardian Liberty Voice. “When the first European settlers arrived, America was already home to millions of native people who spoke thousands of tongues as diverse and colorful as any of today’s modern languages. Sadly, only about eight of these languages are still spoken in any significant way by today’s bilingual Indian population.” These eight languages include Navajo, Cree, Ojibwa, Cherokee, Dakota, Apache, Blackfoot, and Choctaw.
SLE is partnering with Lingua.ly, the educational tech startup that helps users learn a language while browsing the web, and Mango Languages, the leading provider of language-learning resources in North American libraries, as sponsors of the contest. Winning entries, which will be announced in December, will receive prizes such as cash awards, a one-year free subscription to Mango Languages for their entire school, and the opportunity to help choose the next Lingua.ly language. Submissions are accepted via SLE’s contest website and are open to all who are over 18-years-old and are attending an accredited institution in the U.S. Contest judges include the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, a group that creates audio dictionaries for indigenous languages around the world that are on the brink of disappearing.
“We are thrilled to be working with Mango Languages and Lingua.ly on this contest, and eager to see how students across the country highlight the potential impact of language education on their lives and the lives of others around them,” said Amelia Friedman, Executive Director of the Student Language Exchange. “We hope that entrants are creative in identifying ways that language education can promote culturally-sensitive communication and cross-cultural collaboration at home and abroad.”
While the number of Americans who speak a second language is not likely to skyrocket next year, SLE, Lingua.ly, and other organizations that organized and sponsored this national contest may create a higher awareness to endangered languages that encourages students to take up a foreign tongue. Perhaps before this century ends, the number of Americans who speak a second — or third language — may rival their European allies.
By Nick Ng
Interview with Meredith Cicechia, M.S.
Student Language Exchange
Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition, Indiana University