Computers are the new foreign language teachers in US schools

Computers do know every language on the globe.
Computers do know every language on the globe.
Image: Reuters/John Nazca
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Rosetta Stone reluctantly took teaching gigs in Maine’s classrooms this year.

“We never want to replace someone’s job,” says Franklin Moomaw, the company’s regional director of education in the state. Rosetta Stone’s recommendation was for the program to supplement teacher lessons—it’s used this way in 4,000 schools in the US.

The thing is, humans didn’t want the work. People aren’t applying to teach languages, Jay Ketner, world languages specialist for the Maine Department of Education, told the Bangor Daily News.

Indeed, a report released in September by the Learning Policy Institute muses that a crisis is looming in American teaching generally, with student demand far outpacing the supply of teachers. This is in great part because fewer people are becoming educators and retaining them is tough, all while populations are growing and classrooms get more packed.

Jessica Ward, a high school principal in Somerset County, Maine, told ABC News that she got a single application for an open French language teacher role at Madison Area Memorial High School this year. The applicant got the job but declined Ward’s offer, citing a better gig elsewhere. So the school administrator engineered an electronic solution, opting for software in the classroom as a last resort.

The school district also hired an “education technician” to supervise students and handle glitches, sort of like tech-support-meets-teacher’s-aide. Soon several schools in other rural districts in Maine, struggling similarly, followed suit.

Despite student demand for foreign language teachers at the high school level, few want to learn how to teach the subject in college. In Maine, for example, enrollment in graduate foreign language programs has declined dramatically in the last decade and, as a result, local universities have eliminated or cut back those departments in recent years, Ketner says.

The timing of this shortage couldn’t be worse. No one knows what the future will hold but it’s quite certain that in a webbed world, cross cultural exchange will play a major role. “We know now we have a global economy, and being able to prepare our students for that global experience is really important,” says Tina Meserve, a Maine school superintendent.

Cambridge University in the UK in May issued a report supporting this view, and warning that a decline in foreign language learning in Britain is creating a skills deficit that has “wide-reaching economic, political and military effects.” The school demanded urgent action from the government, but a Department For Education spokesperson denied that foreign language study was in decline, and no action appears to have been taken.

An October report issued by a Princeton University task force similarly insists that an international approach to education is more important than ever. It proposed eliminating all exceptions to foreign language learning requirements for an undergraduate degree, as language is more than a mere skill; it’s ”a critical point of entry into cross-cultural understanding,” according to the report.

Although high-school students are interested in foreign languages, as evidenced by the demand in Maine necessitating software solutions, the Princeton task force notes that study in college is declining while enrollment in other departments, like computer science, rise to unprecedented levels. Nonetheless, the task force believes that students don’t always know what they need, writing “Enhanced language instruction would prepare students for deeper and sustained immersion in international contexts and give students the tools needed to more fully appreciate a different cultural worldview.”

Whether software can provide that perspective remains to be seen. Ward says machine teachers do have some advantages over people: students can choose from a range of languages and interact freely with technology. Nonetheless, the principal says she will “probably” repost job openings for human teachers of French and Spanish next year.