The Future of Language Learning Part 1: Legislation and the JNCL

It goes without saying that state and national legislation is going to play a key role in the future of how students, from K-12 all the way to those beginning in the military, will acquire new languages. Throughout the years, various education acts have provided grants, funding, and initiatives that directly affect the language learning community.


Even as far back as 1946, with the passing of the Fulbright Act, President Truman placed an emphasis on international exchange, which put the idea of diplomacy at the forefront of people’s minds. Of course, with diplomacy and international affairs comes a critical emphasis on language and culture; Truman was wise to understand that, without knowledge of both, diplomacy is weakened.


Since then, many important pieces of legislation have been passed that have either directly funded or promoted the learning of languages in the US. Probably the most well-known of these programs is Fulbright-Hays, part of Title VI of the Higher Education Act, designed for educators to engage in cultural exchanges.


As part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015, new breath was given to language learning opportunity, including an expansion of potential grants and funding under Title IV, meant to create well-rounded students, and an expansion of Title III, geared towards English language and immersion learners. Part of the great potential under ESSA comes from an advocacy for the language community from the Joint National Council on Languages (JNCL).


Just what is the JNCL and what have they done?

The JNCL was established in 1974 by 10 professional organizations, including ACTFL and the MLA. Since then, it has grown to include over 140 organizations. Since 1988, it has been active in legislation through the National Council for Languages and International Studies, and in 2013, it began its  Language Advocacy Day, which I had the pleasure to attend this year. Please click here to read more about the day.


Dr. Bill Rivers, the current executive director, informed me about how critical JNCL has been in past legislation, and will continue to be in the future. Many programs dedicated to language learning have been in jeopardy or in danger of being underfunded in the past few years, one of the major reasons for the creation of Language Advocacy Day. Dr. Rivers noted that, under the Obama Administration, many programs were cut or lost funding due to “benign neglect.” In more recent years the majority-Republican Congress has not been “interested” in creating new programs. However, due to one-on-one opportunities to meet with Congressmen and their staff, many of these programs have retained their funding. According to Dr. Rivers, part of the success of maintaining funding for legislation has been that the participants of Advocacy Day are not professional lobbyists; in fact, the fact that they are regular people, teachers, linguists, etc. , creates a bigger impact because they are able to share their personal concerns and stories that they experience every day.


What does the JNCL see in the future for language learning?

Dr. Rivers noted there are many opportunities for languages in the coming legislative year. As noted in a previous NML article, H.R. 1239, The World Language Advancement and Readiness Act,  and S.2255, Advancing International and Foreign Language Education Act, give both chambers of Congress the opportunity to bring language learning to the forefront. Both acts seek to expand funding for K-12, and reconsider existing legislation to bring them to the 21st century. Also of particular note is funding for  Title III, the bill concerning English language and dual-language immersion learners; although the spending cap is set at $800 million a year, current funding is at $740 million, and there is concern this will not provide adequate funding for a constantly expanding and growing population. This bill has directly resulted in an expansion of dual-language programs across the country, from 250 in 2001 to over 6,000 programs now.


Also of interest to the language community will be updating both K-12 and higher ed programs to meet these expanding needs; of major importance will be the retention and expansion of language programs, and noting the “return on investment” of higher education. With more and more programs being asked to prove their value, either formally through studies or informally through concerned parents and students, higher ed will need to explore how to demonstrate the necessity of a second, or even third language, in today’s rapidly globalizing society and economy.


As you can see, although there are many challenges for the time being in the language community, many grassroots and lobbying organizations are working directly to ensure that the future remains bright and that the language community continues to expand at the pace it has. In our next article, we will see how one school district took the program into the 21st century through community involvement and the dedication to make all language learners aware of the value and importance of their continuing education, even already bilingual students.


The Future of Language Learning is a continuing series for the National Museum of Language. If you have a unique perspective or insight on the learning of language in the 21st century, please contact to potentially be featured as part of an interview or article.