Major shortage of world language teachers hits Maine and the nation

Decades of neglect at the public school and college levels have now reaped the inevitable disastrous results: nationwide we have a major shortage of world language teachers, and advertised positions all over the country are going unfilled. This means that students who want to study languages, either out of intrinsic interest – or because they know languages will help them in their college and working lives – simply cannot. There aren’t enough certified teachers in this country who speak languages well enough to teach them.

Facing the language teacher shortage head-on, the Portland Press Herald reported September 18th that Principal Jessica Ward of Madison, Maine tried to solve the dilemma in the only way she could think of – she purchased Rosetta Stone for her school. Ward, dissatisfied with her own solution, realizes Rosetta Stone – a computer program – cannot offer what a human teacher can.”Without language teachers, high schools are resorting to computer programs”>Principal Jessica Ward of Madison, Maine tried to solve the dilemma in the only way she could think of – she purchased Rosetta Stone for her school. Ward, dissatisfied with her own solution, realizes Rosetta Stone – a computer program – cannot offer what a human teacher can. Ward says, “It’s hard to replace having a real person there to help students when they are struggling or to make the learning relevant to their lives… I worry that they are missing out on the cultural education and the personal touch of having a real teacher available.”

Learning languages falls under the umbrellas both of global competence education, and of 21st century education, both of which strive to provide the skillsets necessary to understand the global interconnectedness of our world, to comprehend different perspectives, and to empathize and communicate with people from cultures very different from one’s own. Language skill is integral to participating in the global community. On a very basic level, it’s hard to clinch a business deal if you are monolingual and have no awareness of what it means to be trying to speak in a language not one’s own – that situation will almost inevitably end in cultural misunderstandings.

Over half the people in the world are able to use two languages comfortably. These people have the flexibility of mind necessary for expressing and interpreting what they experience in several different ways. When I traveled in Morocco last year I was deeply impressed by the ability of much of the youth to navigate life in at least three languages – often in a single sentence! Aside from the linguistic skill I witnessed, I marveled at the global awareness of the young people and at the elasticity of their minds. They could often use three different languages with ease in one sentence! They simply chose whatever language’s words and expressions best matched what they wanted to say!

The obsession of the United States with achievement in Math and English Language Arts has shortchanged a generation of students. The linguistic and overall academic achievement of most of our population is dwarfed by that of so many developed nations. Perhaps this world language teacher shortage will finally be the wake-up call we need. If we want a seat at the table of the world community, we need to invest in training a new generation of world language teachers right away. Rosetta Stone may help in a pinch, but it’s not going to really teach anyone a language.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.