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At the societal level, the need for language is generally defined within very general social goals, such as ‘national security’, ‘social justice’, or the like. The purpose of associating language with goals like these is to motivate policy and planning for language education at the national, state, or local level, or within the federal language education system. In an ideal world, every policy and intervention at the societal level would be discussed, based on an explicit cost-benefit analysis of the contribution of the intervention to the societal good. This would presume a clear specification of the contribution of the specific intervention domain (e.g., language) to the societal goal (e.g., national security), together with the qualifications of the responsible implementing agent (e.g., the Department of Defense and/or the higher education system). Such specification entails an economic approach, which involves specific description of the elements involved and the correlation of cost and benefit.
An economic approach to the language issue treats language as amenable to market analysis that describes its behavior and provides information to policy makers for their decisions on how to invest scarce public resources. It starts from the perspective that there exists a market for language in a given country, one which can be more or less well described, and which can be influenced by policy interventions from a centralized government body.
In nations around the world, the study of a second or third language is the norm, often beginning in elementary school and continuing through secondary school and into the university. The result is that by the time they graduate from the system students often reach a degree of functional competence that enables them to use the language – often English – in their personal and professional lives. By contrast, in English-speaking countries like the United States, the study of Languages Other Than English (LOTEs) does not occupy a central place in the educational system, nor does it typically result in usable competence. The education system in the United States often struggles simply to justify and then provide instruction in LOTEs since the need for such competence is less obvious to US educational policy makers and to the general citizenry in light of the perceived status of English around the world.
Developments in recent times seem to be changing the situation in English-speaking countries, where globalization and immigration have produced a sea change with regard to language use and learning. If one takes the USA as an example, the need for language competence in the public and private sectors is dire, as demand is exploding and the supply is patently inadequate. The problem is that the US educational system is simply not structured to meet current – let alone anticipated – language demand, as too few students study a LOTE for long enough to reach any level of functional competence (Brecht and Rivers, 2000).