I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I graduated from Minnetonka High School, perennially ranked among the top high schools in the state and consequently, the nation. Of course, that was eons ago, in 1990, before there was anyone who knew what email or the internet was; years before Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Zoom would become part of our daily lives.
Nonetheless, Minnetonka high school was considered to be quite forward-thinking back in the late 1980s when it became among the first schools in the state to begin offering classes in Chinese Mandarin. Some forward thinkers in the school district correctly identified the outsized role that China, and by consequence its language, would have on global commerce in the decades that would follow. It was a bold move that has now expanded; the school district now offers an array of K-8 immersion programs in Mandarin followed by college-level Chinese language studies in High School.
The same type of bold thinking is now needed as it relates to Portuguese. According to an American Council 2017 comprehensive study of world language enrollments across the formal U.S. education system, the Portuguese language was only offered in 37 different high school programs, or 0.2% of all U.S. high schools. These numbers are probably a bit conservative as they don’t account for smaller private schools and other non-traditional academic programs, but the trend in clear: for the world’s sixth most spoken language with roughly 270 million native speakers – and in particular the language of a powerhouse economy like Brazil – more U.S. high schools
should be offering students the opportunity to learn Portuguese.
When it comes to world language curriculum, resources are always a limiting factor. Yet why, in comparison to Portuguese, do over 1,500 high schools offer German, a language spoken by far fewer people – 130 million people world-wide. That German have such an outsized influence in American high school curriculums is nothing more than a vestige of America’s now distant past, when German immigration was still on-going and again later due to geopolitical considerations stemming from the two world wars.
But times have changed, and it is high time that high school language offerings are brought into the modern era as well. It’s worth noting that Portuguese is not the only language that gets short shrift in American high schools. Arabic, Russian, Korean, Farsi, and Malay should be taught much more widely and could be considered much more strategic for American foreign interests than German and possibly even French, the second most widely available language taught after Spanish.
Nonetheless, here are five reasons why U.S. high schools as well as their students and their parents, should all advocate more forcefully for the inclusion of Portuguese language in their local schools:
1. Job Security. Despite the high number of native speakers, few English-speakers learn Portuguese as a second language, compared to other global languages like Spanish and French. Historically, there has been intense interest among multinational corporations for English speakers who are fluent in Portuguese.
2. Brazil. With an annual GDP of nearly $2.5 trillion, the Brazilian economy is by far the second most robust economy in the Americas and the ninth largest in the world. And it’s a country where English is still not widely spoken.
3. Angola. From 2000 to 2010, this oil and diamond-rich African nation was the world’s fastest growing economy, sporting
annual average GDP growth of 11.1 percent. Its vast land, water, and mineral resources will make this ex-Portuguese colony a major player in Africa for decades to come.
4. Spanish vs. Portuguese. As someone who speaks both languages quite fluently, it’s easy to see why the transition from Portuguese to Spanish is easier than the reverse. And Brazilians can understand any Spanish speaker, but the opposite does not easily occur without formal training.
5. It’s a Truly Global Language. Perhaps only English and French enjoy greater geographic penetration at a global scale. Portuguese is spoken in 11 countries on 4 continents and it is the official language in nine of these. Unlike many languages that are losing speakers through aging demographics, in the coming years, more and more people will speak Portuguese, primarily as a result of Brazilian and Angolan economic and demographic growth. UNESCO estimates that, in 2050, Portuguese will be spoken by approximately 335 million people.
It’s about time that U.S. public schools begin expanding the number or Portuguese language programs available to American high school students. Their futures may depend on it.
Columnist for CNN, television producer & political advisor