ULG's Language Services Blog

Q+A With ACTFL Executive Director Martha Abbott On Lead With Languages


Language literacy in the United States may be more important now than ever.

With the internet fueling globalization and ecommerce around the world, the 21st century has forced us to acclimate to a workforce and economy that is data driven, multilingual and more culturally diverse than ever before.

Unfortunately, despite the need for multilingual students and workers, only around one in four Americans can fluently speak a second language. To make matters worse, statistics show fewer students are enrolling in language programs around the country.

Lead with Languages is trying to remedy this lack of language education and proficiency in the United States. A national campaign spearheaded by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Lead with Languages promotes language advocacy and education in order to help students gain the multilingual skills needed to succeed in today’s world.

United Language Group had the opportunity to talk with ACTFL Executive Director Martha “Marty” Abbott about how Lead with Languages came to be and the campaign’s attempt to close the language gap. Here’s what she told us.

What made ACTFL decide to start Lead With Languages? When did the decision take place?

About four years ago, ACTFL began a strategic planning process with one of the outcomes calling for a national campaign to promote language education in the U.S. We began to investigate the climate for such a campaign, and in our early national polling learned that the general public was largely unaware of the important personal and professional benefits gained from learning another language. We also started to look for campaign sponsors and supporters. As we gained the level of support needed to launch nationally, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) began a national study of our nation’s language capabilities. It was clearly a win-win to launch our campaign along with the release of the national report, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education in the 21st Century, since the recommendations in the report and the campaign’s goals are closely aligned.

Why is bilingualism important in America?

Not only have the demographics of our citizens in the U.S. changed dramatically in the past 30 years, but so has our need to be agile in an ever-changing global environment. The critical role that language skills play in both these arenas cannot be underestimated. A recent report from the New American Economy, Not Lost in Translation: The Growing Importance of Foreign Language Skills in the U.S. Job Market, indicates that demand for bilingual workers has doubled from 2010-2015 in all career sectors and levels.

How will you measure this campaign’s success? What does a “win” look like?

To measure the campaign’s success we will certainly be looking at some key metrics such as traffic to the website and participation in the Call to Action and other features of the campaign. We just launched a new offer of student scholarships to attend Concordia Language Villages so we will measure the success of that aspect of the campaign by how many students apply. We will look at metrics from social media and other campaign media data. And finally, we will attempt to measure growth in language programs and enrollments, although with 20 states not collecting enrollment data, that remains a challenging issue.

Why do you think the US struggles in the area of bilingual proficiency/education?

Our history points to a nation that has developed very independently, including a geographic isolation from other countries. Our fierce independence and the dominance of English have allowed us to move forward under the pretense that we can continue to grow economically and compete internationally as we have before. With a fundamentally different world, now so interconnected in every realm, we have a national language gap and find ourselves unable to meet the linguistic and cultural challenges that we are facing that are turning out to be inextricably linked to our domestic and international challenges.

Your website has a wealth of information on language learning opportunities. Is the main goal of this campaign awareness?

We believe it is important to create this “first of its kind” hub of information so that a variety of audiences including parents, students, administrators, and policymakers, can find information. But the key to the campaign is having our audiences take action in their local communities. Whether it is starting a language program in an elementary school, preventing a language program from being cut in a high school, engaging heritage learners in maintaining their native language while learning English, we aim to have people across America speaking up for language education.

How can someone support this campaign?

There are many ways to support the campaign and these will increase as we continue to roll out the campaign components. Downloading the Lead with Languages logo and placing it prominently in one’s community, taking action as I mentioned before, informing others about the campaign, and, of course, assisting financially as a campaign partner. We depend on this kind of support to keep growing the campaign.

Is this an indefinite campaign? Does it have an end date?

This is a sustained campaign that will grow over time. Any campaign that seeks to change hearts and minds has to be sustained. It will take a while to change the American public’s attitude toward language learning—one community at a time.

Marty Abbott is currently the Executive Director for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Her career began in Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) where she was a language teacher, foreign language coordinator, and Director of High School Instruction. She has served on national committees to develop student standards, beginning teacher standards, and performance assessments in foreign languages. She was President of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in 2003 and became its Executive Director in 2011. She was appointed to the National Security Education Board by President Obama in 2016.



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