Save a Language Program

Save a Program header

Know of a language program in danger of being eliminated? With the right information and a network of like-minded supporters, there is a lot that you and fellow advocates in your community can accomplish together.

Guide to Saving a Language Program

Learning a language is a sequential and cumulative process, and students learn most effectively when frequent, regular instruction—including instruction conducted primarily in the target language—is provided over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, disruptions to the continuity of a language program sometimes occur. These breaks in continuity have a significant impact on the proficiency gains students are able to make through instruction.

Many assume that less commonly taught languages are the only language programs in precarious positions, but that is not the case. In recent years, school districts have identified even traditionally offered languages like German, French, and Italian as non-sustainable. The two most common factors that negatively impact the sustainability of a language program are student enrollment and financial support from the school system.

Student enrollment has a direct correlation to the sustainability of a language program over time. Enrollment trends and patterns are influenced by many factors, including student interests and motivation, college and career choices, student perceptions of the quality of the language program, and even the political climate of a community or region.

District or system financial support is often based on student enrollment: decreasing or low enrollment can result in a per pupil cost that is beyond what a district budgets for a course. In addition, staffing decisions are driven by enrollment at all levels of public schools: most districts or systems calculate the minimum enrollment per class needed to justify a full-time teacher and feel the need to hold to that minimum enrollment number when determining course offerings and teaching positions each year. In other instances, decreasing state or local funding creates budget shortfalls that School Boards or Boards of Trustees must alleviate. Budget development often begins in November of a school year cycle with a final budget target of May or June of the following year. In some schools, regular budget constraints have made the threat of discontinuing language programs a reoccurring issue that parent and community stakeholders must address frequently.

Assess Your Starting Situation

One key to saving a language program is to begin recovery efforts before the issue appears on a School Board or Board of Trustees meeting agenda.

Stakeholder groups who support language programs are often unaware that a program is in danger until it has hit such an agenda, at which point enrollment trends and patterns may be beyond the point of recovery or internal decisions may have already been made regarding budget and financial support. The earlier you can begin, the more leverage you’ll have.

The steps necessary to “save” a language program in danger will depend largely on the nature of the risk facing that particular program and the remaining time available to unite and organize stakeholders. Consider the following two plans of action:

  • If the risk is based on budget shortfalls and time is short – Form an Advocacy Group
  • If the risk is based on enrollment and financial sustainability and there is time – Promote Program Success and Build Capacity Within the Program

Form an Advocacy Group

When the risk is based on budget shortfalls and time is short

Parent involvement is often the most important factor in saving a language program at risk when time is of the essence. Because parents are the stakeholder group most invested in their children’s educations, other community leaders—such as businesses and Board of Trustees or School Board members—are most likely to listen to them.

Funding decisions are often centered on elective courses. Even though languages are vital to global competence (the skills students need to be successful in a globally connected world), regrettably, many districts and systems see language programs as optional and many schools and districts label language courses as electives—considering them at best as a compliance box to be checked off, or at worst as not necessary for all students. Decision makers might really believe that language proficiency is not possible via school-based instruction or don’t believe there is a passionate group ready to advocate for the program and its learners.

As outlined in an October 2010 article from The Language Educator on at-risk language programs and the actions that helped to save them, here are several important steps to pay attention to when forming a productive stakeholder advocacy group:

Create a diverse membership base of parents, students, alumni of the language program, and community members.

Many grassroots advocacy groups are initiated by one passionate person, but it takes more than one person’s efforts to make a difference.

  • Alumni and current students of the language program are often the best public relations resource. Showcase their accomplishments, their engagement with the language and culture, and the relevance and importance they give to their language as much as possible by scheduling presentations to the School Board, promotional visits to campuses feeding students into the language program, and community events and programs.
  • Don’t neglect to include national, regional, and state language organizations in your advocacy group. These organizations can write letters of support, share information and data, and offer advice and encouragement. For a head start at locating organizations in your area, take a look at ACTFL’s list of organizational members.
Unite around the message that languages are of critical importance for students and for the local economy.

It is important to stress that this effort is not about pitting one language against another, or one type of elective course against another type of elective course. If that happens, every group can wind up losing ground.

  • Emphasize the importance of student choice and interest: remind fellow stakeholders that each child deserves to have the opportunity to grow in expertise and competency through articulated sequences of language instruction, hopefully starting at an early age and continuing through graduation.
Tap into the talents and contacts of others.

You are not alone in this effort. By drawing on the strengths of each unique member of your advocacy group, you will build a much stronger case.

  • Make each advocacy group meeting purposeful and organized; creating a professional tone will lead to enhanced retention of group members and recruitment of additional members.
  • Leverage members’ life and job experiences to develop a strong set of advocacy tools. Identify who is skilled at website design and development, database setup and maintenance, Facebook page moderation, creating promotional flyers and materials, or social media moderation and curation.
  • Take into consideration the resources members have through their own connections:
    • Do members have contacts at media sources such as newspapers, television or radio stations? How about community newsletters or email blasts?
    • Is there anyone with NGO contacts for public service or service learning opportunities?
    • Are there group members who could fund student participation in language contests, national exams, and language competitions, and then promote their participation and results?
Have your data ready.

When it comes time to speak at public meetings and forums, make your messages strategic and intentional.

  • Don’t assume that any information is common knowledge to Board members or other decision makers. Come to meetings and forums prepared to back up specific arguments with data—including research about the cognitive and academic benefits of language learning and updates on current best practices in world language pedagogy.

Promote Program Success and Build Capacity Within the Program

When the risk is based on enrollment and financial sustainability and there is time

While it may seem that parent or community stakeholder groups can have no impact on program success and capacity, support and encouragement from instructors and students can pay dividends over time that will have a direct impact on the sustainability of a language program.

Promoting Program Success

Student success and language proficiency growth is a compelling argument for educators.

A simple but effective plan to strengthen district support for a language program is to provide data-driven evidence of the program’s effectiveness—such as demonstrated by external assessments and student performance data collected over time. Available for a fee, Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate exams are just two means by which schools are measuring language performance. Additional opportunities to promote and document program success include:

  • National Language Exams. Specific language teacher membership organizations and other teachers’ associations offer annual exams for a small fee which rank students nationally and can lead to scholarships for study abroad.
  • Regional and State Language Contests. Organizations that support language programs often hold contests to promote language study. Students who participate in these contests are often eligible for awards or scholarships, and all students can include results on college entrance documents as evidence of language proficiency. Financial support from a district, school, parent, or organization is necessary for student participation.
  • National, Regional, or State Contests. Essay/video/podcast/poster contests are a little more difficult to find, but they provide low-cost ways for programs to promote their students. An online search will lead you to opportunities such as the student video contest administered by Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey (FLENJ), or the essay competition sponsored by Concordia Language Villages for a scholarship to their immersion camp.

Building Capacity Within the Program

Student enrollment is a critical factor in sustaining a language program. Having students enroll in a language program may be the first hurdle, but the most important question is how to get them to stay in a language program beyond the first year of instruction.

Student interest and motivation are consistently strong predictors of successful language learning and link directly to student choice and enrollment in language programs.

Stakeholder groups should attend to these research-based characteristics when engaging with districts about program success. Student engagement with language learning is increased when students:

  • Feel that they can be successful learning the language because communication, rather than grammatical accuracy, is the initial aim of the course;
  • Develop ownership of their own learning—including the opportunity to set their own learning goals and self-assess based on those goals;
  • Have input regarding topics, vocabulary, and the format of products and performances;
  • Are encouraged to use the language they are learning for authentic communication around topics relevant to them;
  • Have multiple meaningful opportunities to process and practice in a supportive learning community;
  • Understand the cognitive, social, and practical benefits of learning a language; and
  • Develop a personal connection to the culture and countries of the language studied.
Collaboration across schools and campuses builds a support system for teachers in at-risk programs and promotes a sense of community.

In many cases, at-risk programs are taught by the only teacher of that language on a campus; for programs with low enrollment, this teacher may also be assigned to more than one campus during the school day, further limiting his or her opportunity to work as a team with other language instructors. This can lead to a feeling of isolation and separateness from the language-learning community.

  • Greater collaboration between schools, in and across clusters, allows teachers of language programs at risk to share resources and ideas with partner educators. It also creates learning pathways for students moving between schools in a locality or in the transition between grades or levels.
Shifting the curriculum is an underutilized strategy for at-risk language programs.

Typical language curriculum is built around general topics that may seem irrelevant to 21st century learners. While not possible in all instances, refocusing the learning plan around STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) or Problem/Project-Based Learning topics can electrify a program and increase student interest.

  • Stakeholder or advocacy groups with members in these fields or areas of interest can be excellent resources to teachers or language departments making this shift. Multiple stakeholder groups can also join together with the teacher to explore cluster or cooperative arrangements for sharing curriculum planning and resources.
Increasing technology can help when properly supported by experience or expertise.

While regularly cited as a solution for many at-risk programs, the reality is that most teachers do not have the expertise themselves, at least initially, to make the most effective use of a technology solution. Members of stakeholder or advocacy groups can lend invaluable support by:

  • Sharing their knowledge of how to use video or web conferencing, and setting up video linkages to sister schools in the target culture or country;
  • Sharing their experiences with distance learning or blended learning (this includes shared curriculum planning to ensure consistency and continuity as well as flexible delivery by video/web conferencing);
  • Contributing expertise to the district’s own locally developed strategies, especially where issues of staffing impact a school’s capacity to sustain a program; and
  • Seeking out grants, fellowships, or sponsorships for instructors and school personnel.

Take a Stand

Maintaining and sustaining a language program over time requires vigilance, flexibility, and constant attention. Learning that your program is in danger may feel daunting at first, but it does not mean that you—as a parent, concerned student, or other community stakeholder—are helpless. Advocacy groups can testify to the challenges and issues involved in saving a program, as well as to the rewards and benefits brought about by their efforts. By joining forces with other advocates, presenting a unified message, providing evidence of success, and supporting students and educators to maintain healthy enrollment rates, individuals just like you are saving at-risk language programs every year.


Reese, Susan. “Success! How Threatened Language Programs Have Been Saved Through Coordinated Efforts.” The Language Educator: October 2010. Pp. 32-36.

Fairfax FLAGS

Fairfax FLAGS advocates for full funding for Fairfax County Public Schools and the preservation and expansion of world language programs.