A lot of folks are surprised when I tell them I took Japanese in high school. Out here on the east coast, it's not the most common language. When I tell them I'm from Seattle, it makes a bit more sense. Japanese was especially relevant in my community (actually a Seattle burb) with a couple of major employers that conducted serious trade with the Pacific Rim nation.
I read an interesting article in the Mansfield News Journal (not usually on my reading list, but this article percolated up) about the lack of emphasis on teaching foreign language, particularly outside the typical French/Spanish offerings. According to the article,
Just three years ago, only eight of Ohio's 4,000 public schools offered Chinese. Now, more than 60 do, according to state education officials.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, fewer than 20 of the 1,200 public schools are offering some sort of Chinese instruction.
Despite the national call for more foreign language learning, Ohio and Kentucky do not require students to take a language to earn a diploma. Language requirements are necessary for students seeking honors diplomas in both states.
My three years of Japanese were the best classes I took in high school. They were generally harder than all the AP classes I took and my instructor's rigorous commitment to immersion (still not widely accepted then) made for a lot of learning. Perhaps more importantly, I walked away with a far better understanding of Asian culture than I might have just by having lots of Japanese and Korean friends. Nothing speaks to a culture like its language.
Here's where technology comes in, though. We now have an abundance of tools to bring strong language instruction to students in areas where it might be very hard to find a native Chinese speaker, for example. They're easy to find in Seattle; Ohio? Not so much.
Yet the ability to speak in a dominant foreign language and interact with other cultures with a degree of sensitivity is so utterly important as boundaries and borders disappear (especially in the business world) that we must leverage these technologies and get kids learning languages.
Distance learning is a piece of cake with a decent internet connection. EPals and plenty of other services can connect American classrooms to Chinese classrooms and allow for video and audio conferencing. Terabytes of media in multiple languages are free for the taking.
There is no excuse for the way we treat foreign language learning in America, especially when the technology to augment local resources is cheap and plentiful. Language requirements for graduation shouldn't be an afterthought - they should be integrated into the curriculum and should leverage the plethora of tools at our disposal to make sure our students graduate with fluency in something other than English (although fluency in English for our graduates would be nice too).