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Does the term “foreign language” still fit our times?

Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language (TAFL); the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL): we need to talk about the “F”-word in these acronyms, writes Dr. Roger Anderson. If Arabic is a “foreign” language, then every time Arab-Americans speak it within their home, they are performing something foreign in every conversation. Hence, the “foreign” has to be abandoned, opines Dr. Anderson in a thought-provoking guest article.

Last updated: 10 months ago

Anyone learning Arabic will encounter four letters fairly quickly: . They stand for “ as a Foreign Language“. But what is a foreign language? This may sound trivial at first glance, but it is not. For example, someone born in the U.S., whose parents are originally from an Arab country, wants to learn Arabic later in life. This raises the following question: Is Arabic a foreign language for this person?

There is another abbreviation that people in the United States in particular know: ACTFL. According to foundation documents, the abbreviation stands for “American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages“.

Dr. Roger Anderson is a member of ACTFL and argues in the following guest article that the letter F – standing for “foreign” – should be replaced in ACTFL. His article explores the question of whether English is actually the official language of the United States, how complex identities are today, and why we should be wary of the term “foreign” in general.

Roger Anderson
Dr. Roger Anderson
LinkedIn profile

Roger Anderson is Assistant Professor of International Languages & Cultures at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio, where he teaches French, Arabic, and courses developing students' intercultural competence.

Roger Anderson received his Ph.D. from Ohio State University (Columbus) specializing in Foreign, Second, and Multilingual Education. He received his BA and MA in African Studies/French from the Ohio University (Athens), and an MA in Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language from . He is excited for the 2022 Season Opener of the newly rebranded Cleveland Guardians baseball club.


What's in a name? Names are nothing more than words that reference people, places, and things within written and spoken forms of communication. And yet names are so much more. They provide an identity to its owner, and for entities like non-profits and corporations, names encapsulate a whole universe of ideologies within them. The social awakening the U.S. has been experiencing in the past four years or so has called for all Americans to re-examine our relationship to society's marginalized members.

We must bravely, honestly assess how our identities and positions bear upon others. World language educators and administrators are not excused from this self-reflection.

The term “foreign language” within the US context

The term, “foreign language”, within the U.S. context is highly problematic. Recognizing that dictionary definitions fail to capture the full extent of values embedded within a word, a general definition of “foreign” is that the thing being described is not in fact of that place; it does not belong there, not totally, or not legitimately.

“Foreign” language, then, is a language that does not really belong in our society, not really. This one word reinforces the epistemological hierarchy in which English is taken to be the native (non-foreign) language, which relegates other languages as foreign.

This hierarchy marginalizes the millions of people living in the U.S. who use a language or languages other than English alongside English. This includes the entire population of Arabic speakers/ users within the U.S.

“We must recognize too that making a language ‘official' does not foreignize all other languages, but only makes them non-official. Nor is a language native to a country simply because the majority of a country's citizens speak that language.”

Roger Anderson

Moreover, this term implies an historically inaccurate view of the past. American English is not native to North America; it evolved from Old English, which itself evolved from various Germanic languages in Europe. Furthermore, the United States is not, nor has ever been a monolingual country, not prior to or following the removal of indigenous peoples from their land or the importation of enslaved humans to cultivate the soil. Any implication that the (non-English) languages of indigenous peoples were or are foreign seems oxymoronic, and idiotic if truth be told.

The status of ACTFL (founded as: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language)

Within the United States, ACTFL is the preeminent organization of second world language educators and administrators; however, its reach is global. Its services are invaluable to those who promote, assess, teach, and learn additional world languages.

actl homepage
Screenshot website ACTL: https://actfl.org

ACTFL was founded in 1967 from within the Modern Language Association, yet until very recently, ACTFL was an acronym for the “American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages”1. History of ACTFL. https://www.actfl.org/resources/about-actfl/history-actfl)))).

In 2021, the organization simply goes by ACTFL, deracinated from its original moniker. No explanation of this change seems to be available, and its website seems scrubbed of all references to “American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language”. Yet a quick Google search “what does ACTFL stand for?” inevitably yields ACTFL's full, former name2. This scrubbing was presumably done in response to ACTFL's growth internationally, in part, and in part, out of a quiet acquiescence that “foreign” is a highly problematic term.

The “A” and “FL” in ACTFL linger as the ghosts of “American” and “foreign language”. These terms position all languages other than English as foreign within the U.S., a positioning that does not reflect the socio-political reality.

What is the “official” language in the U.S.?

The U.S. as a nation has no official language, and U.S. citizens speak hundreds of languages in addition to English. Many states have adopted measures that officialize English, yet others have recently repealed such measures3.

languages spoken usa
Languages in the USA

We must recognize too that making a language official does not foreignize all other languages, but only makes them non-official. Nor is a language “native” to a country simply because the majority of a country's citizens speak that language. Were this so, then French would be non-native (foreign) in Canada, just as dialects of Maya would be foreign to Mexico. Canadians and Mexicans would find such propositions ridiculous.

ACTFL's FL also implies that monolingualism is a normative fact in the U.S. Any second language is non-native and is thus positioned as alien and extraneous to the U.S. national identity. In other words, monolingualism is natural and native while bilingualism is unnatural and un-native. Bilingualism is something foreign then, rather than a legitimate identity of millions of Americans.

  • All this is to say that the FL in ACTFL is incorrect, hurtful, and runs counter to the vocation of world language teaching.
  • What's worse, it communicates to language learners that the skills they are developing serve no purpose inside the borders of the United States.
  • This implication misconstrues the linguistic reality of the country and the value of the skills they are developing.

Are “foreign” languages spoken in the U.S.?

Yes, “foreign” languages are spoken abroad, but they are also spoken in the U.S. From the 2010 U.S. census, it was found that 350 different languages are spoken in homes throughout the U.S.4

Most obviously, Spanish is a language spoken within the territory of the United States since the 16th century. Shockingly, within the near future, it is possible that the United States rise from its second-place ranking to become the county with the largest Spanish-speaking population in the entire world.5 Recognizing these historical and contemporary realities, notions of “foreign” and “native” need to be seen as political constructs more so than reflecting historical or demographic facts. Or else, the only non-foreign (native) languages of the United States would be Shawnee, Abenaki, and Navajo.

An example: Arab-Americans speaking Arabic

Problematizing these terms reveals their harmful implications on bilingual individuals and English Language Learners (E.L.L.'s) within the United States.

  • If, for example, Arabic is a “foreign” language, then every time Arab-Americans speak it within their home, they are performing something foreign in every conversation.
  • What's worse, the identities wrapped up with being an Arabic speaker are also somehow foreign, or less than native.

What then is one to make of the wonderful news outlets like Ohio in Arabic, which makes available in Arabic stories from the local, state, national, and international levels to a readership based in Ohio?6 Are their news stories honoring local scientists and artists who have attained international renown, or stories explaining Ohio's centrality to the history of aviation and the invention of airplanes, less American because they are written in a language other than English? I think not.

Arabic is but one such example. For 350,000 U.S. based readers of Chinese, the World Journal has been publishing out of New York City since 1976.7 Similarly, for the millions of Spanish-speaking Americans, Unvision has provided news services dating back to its origins in San Antonio, Texas in the 1950's.8 These outlets are critical components of the U.S. media landscape, keeping the public informed, in whatever language will best reach them. And the current global pandemic and social turbulence is reminding the entire world of the preciousness of access to correct, comprehensible information.

The benefit of bilingualism

Instead of marginalizing ethnic communities and discouraging bilingualism, U.S. governments and institutions should recognize the bilingual advantage afforded to people know more than one language.9

Moreover, multilingual individuals and E.L.L's should be viewed as resources for linguistic and content expertise for the development of their peers' intercultural competence.10 Of course, it is their right to practice their culture and language within the confines of the law. More respectful relationships can lead to a more inclusive, more democratic society.

World language educators know that the service they provide their communities are invaluable, even if their work is valued little monetarily. Particularly in the U.S., a country whose territory touches 3 of 4 oceans, language instructors remind its citizens that the U.S. is but one of 190 countries on earth, and that international cooperation is unavoidable. So world language instructors must continue to lead. We must now do so with through critical self-reflection, particularly around the identity “ACTFL”, the American Council on the Teaching of “foreign” languages.

The toxicity of the term “foreign language”

It seems that ACTFL already recognizes the toxicity of the term foreign language”. ACTFL's mission, vision, and principles all seem void of references to “foreign language”, as does the entirety of the ACTFL website. It has already lined up the replacement term, “World Languages”, having issued multiple position statements on “Diversity and Inclusion of World Language Teaching & Learning”11 and answering the question “What is a World Language”.12

Java or Arabic? Should students have the choice to substitute human languages with coding languages?

Why ACTFL prefers “world language”, rather than simply “language”, or some other term, becomes visible when considering an additional ACTLF position statement from 2017.

Entitled “Supporting the Study of World Languages and Computer Science”, ACTFL was specifically addressing initiatives bubbling up around the U.S. in state legislatures and school board sessions to replace languages spoken and written by people in other countries with coding languages, used to create software.

Tech-centric advocates continue to assert that students should have the choice to substituting the former (human languages) with the latter (machine languages).13 It remains undeniable that coding languages will continue to be critical in the future of humanity, but coding languages are not used, “by people to interact and negotiate meaning with other people… (nor to) to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the products, practices, and perspectives of a particular culture through the language”.14

In short, the teaching and learning of human languages deepens our humanity while machine languages seem to seek a perfection of humanity's obviation and obsolescence.

To advocates of (human) language learning, like my fellow Arabic nerds, these issues are not trivial.

  • While ACTFL's business advisors can avoid having to unpack the acronym to anyone outside the field, world language instructors cannot.
  • We must explain professional standards and practices, as established by our premiere national organization, prepared to explain that the FL in ACTFL refers to “foreign language”.
  • Every time we do so, we further entrench this silly epistemology of English monolingual supremacy (which is antithetical to our profession and beliefs).

Finally making progress in realizing a more just, respectful global society, the time has come to align our practices and terminologies with our principles. If there were ever a legitimate time to re-brand, the turmoil of the day provides ample justification.

Examples of recent name changes: Cleveland Indians, NPR, Kentucky Fried Chicken

As a congenital fan of Cleveland sports, my own identity as a Cleveland baseball fan is also undergoing a radical change. The recent social reckoning with white supremacy has finally led the ownership of the team formerly known for over 100 years as the “Cleveland Indians” to abandon the offensive name.

“Institutions that continue using ‘foreign languages' will continue to misconstrue linguistic realities.”

Roger Anderson

This is no small change for a city of die-hard Cleveland sports fans. Some fans decry the uneven application of these changes, citing the several other professional sports teams using American Indian-inspired monikers. And yet, changing the name remains the right thing to do.

A few other comparisons of recent corporate name changes come to mind, of less profound social implications.

  • Since 2010, National Public Radio has preferred to be called, “NPR”, simply because it is shorter (and frankly, less stale to a 21st century listener than any possible combination of the words “radio”, “public”, and “national”).15
  • Similarly, Kentucky Fried Chicken now goes by “KFC” for reasons that still are murky. Either the restaurant chain sought a shorter name, to appeal to a more health-conscious customer base.16

In both cases, the subtle rebranding doesn't seem to have severed the association of the company from the original name. Although unempirical, I suspect that if you polled fried chicken-eaters and politically neutral radio news listener what KFC and NPR means, respectively, their answers would not change.

The same would inevitably be true among world language instructors vis-à-vis ACTFL. And yet, the monikers KFC and NPR abandoned didn't foreignize millions of Americans and promulgate linguistic hierarchies based on ahistorical realities.

ACTFL: time for a rebranding

U.S. institutions promoting “foreign” languages should critically reassess the terminologies and framing around language courses. Institutions that continue using “foreign languages” will continue to misconstrue linguistic realities and undercut our work as language educators. For its part, ACTFL, the premier, national organization for our profession, must lead by example:

ACTFL should replace the “FL” with “WL”, and could do so with relative ease, in accordance with its own preferred terminology “world language”.

Rebranding by merely deracinating the acronym from their antecedents, like NPR or KFC, is insufficient. Smartly, ACTFL has discontinued the use of “Foreign” within its name, but the “F” should be discontinued as well. We cannot allow the ghost of “foreign” to haunt us. Would such a change render ACTFL unrecognizable? A wholly new entity? No. Quite simply, our mouths will get used to pronouncing the semivowel /w/ in place of the fricative /f/. Try it: “ACTWL”. Indelicate? Maybe, okay. But at least it doesn't erase millions of Americans.

Throughout the country, no trickle-down effect will occur without ACTFL's support. As an ACTFL member, the identity of a “foreign language” instructor and advocate is being ascribed to me. This identity adopted and reinforced by my membership in the Ohio Foreign Language Association (OFLA) member. OFLA is but following ACTFL's example (Ohioans typically don't like to rock the boat). Were ACTFL to lead, OFLA would surely follow, as would the local and regional organizations across the country.

In summary, names matter. ACTFL, like all professional organizations, should constantly seek to improve themselves as times change. This may even mean a rebranding is in order. Such changes should follow a deep analysis of the costs, both the financial and moral – to the organization and to society – of implementing a change, and of not implementing a change.

For ACTFL, the social, moral costs of not making a change at this critical juncture in time are just too great.

Photo credit: Roger Anderson, William Fortunato

  1. ACTFL. (2021). History of ACTFL. https://www.actfl.org/resources/about-actfl/history-actfl ↩︎
  2. Remark: The wikipedia article about actfl, in December 2021, still gives the full name: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Council_on_the_Teaching_of_Foreign_Languages ↩︎
  3. Kaur, H. (2020). FYI: English isn't the official language of the United States. https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/20/us/english-us-official-language-trnd/index.html ↩︎
  4. U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). Census bureau reports at least 350 languages spoken in U.S. homes. ( No. CB15-185); https://www.census.gov/newsroom/archives/2015-pr/cb15-185.html ↩︎
  5. Grajales-Hall, M. (2011). U.S. will be the country with the most Spanish-speakers in 2050. Latino News Briefs ↩︎
  6. OhioinArabic.com, 2021: Ohio in Arabic; https://ohioinarabic.com ↩︎
  7. Wikipedia.com, 2021: World journal; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Journal#cite_note-worldjournalbrief-4 ↩︎
  8. (Wilkinson, K., 2018, p. 38: Spanish-language television in the United States. Routledge. https://doi.org/ISBN 978-0815386445 ↩︎
  9. Rodriguez, D., Carrasquillo, A. & Lee, K. S. (2014). The bilingual advantage : Promoting academic development, biliteracy, and native language in the classroom. ↩︎
  10. Deardorff, D. K. (2006). Identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(3), 241- 266 ↩︎
  11. ACTFL. (2019). Position Statement: Diversity and inclusion in world language teaching & learning. https://www.actfl.org/advocacy/actfl-position-statements/diversity-and-inclusion-world-language-teaching-learning ↩︎
  12. ACTFL. (2017). Position statement: Supporting the study of world languages and computer science. https://www.actfl.org/advocacy/actfl-position-statements/supporting-the-study-world-languages-and-computer-science ↩︎
  13. Mondo.com. (2021). Foreign vs. coding languages: Should students be allowed to choose? https://mondo.com/foreign-vs-coding-languages-in-schools ↩︎
  14. ACTFL (2017). Position Statement: What is a world language? https://www.actfl.org/advocacy/actfl-position-statements/what-world-language ↩︎
  15. Rehm, D. D. (2010). NPR: What's in a name? https://www.npr.org/sections/inside/2010/07/12/128475395/npr-what-s-in-a-name ↩︎
  16. DiNuzzo, E. (2020). The real reason KFC changed their name from kentucky fried chicken. Readers' Digest)), or to avoid trademark battles with the state of Kentucky ↩︎
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