Back when I was in high school, some fifteen years ago, foreign language curricula were fairly standard across the country. Every school I knew of offered at least French and Spanish. My own school offered German, which was also quite common. The fourth language usually offered was Latin. Any languages beyond that were typically found in private schools or "special" (charter, magnet) public schools, and were usually the common Asian languages (Mandarin, Japanese) or what I think of as "second-tier" European languages (Italian, Russian).
I recently got hold of the curriculum for the local high school where I live now, and I was quite surprised when I saw the languages that it offers: ASL, Filipino(!), French, Mandarin, Punjabi(!), and Spanish. No German or Latin. The course description for ASL includes a warning that it may not satisfy some colleges' foreign language requirements.
I've long been of the opinion that everyone should study at least one foreign language in his or her lifetime, and I consider it a disgrace that most U.S. high schools have no foreign language requirement for graduation. The benefits to foreign language study are numerous: the ability to communicate with more people, the appreciation of other cultures, and a better understanding of one's own native language.
Until now, I've never thought much about which of those benefits is most important. But as I ponder the inclusion of these less commonly-spoken languages and the exclusion of what I consider staples of the traditional Western curriculum, it feels to me that local school districts are making decisions based more upon their personal interests than the goal of a comprehensive high school education for its students. The highest-represented minority races in my city are Hispanic (24%), Filipino (19%), Chinese (9%), and Indian (9%). And although I couldn't find precise statistics, I wouldn't be surprised if our deaf community is significantly larger than average, due to our proximity to a major school for the deaf.
It's natural, of course, for a community to want its language represented in its local high school curriculum. And yet, I wonder if the public schools are really the right place to be teaching such uncommonly spoken languages as Filipino and Punjabi (incidentally, why Punjabi and not the more widely-spoken Hindi?). Should it not be the role of Filipino parents to pass on their culture and heritage to their children, rather than relegating it to the schools? I am tremendously proud to be Taiwanese-American, but I would never support teaching Taiwanese in schools. Especially given the fact that Mandarin is currently the official language of the country, Taiwanese is a fairly useless language for anyone without close ties to pre-1950 Taiwan. While I would love to increase awareness of the country's history and politics among young people, I don't believe that giving the Taiwanese language a disproportionate level of importance in public schools is the way to do it. Let me learn Mandarin in school, but Taiwanese from my family. (See this previous post for a detailed treatment of the differences between Mandarin and Taiwanese.)
I admit, too, that I'm quite distressed by the exclusion of German and Latin from the curriculum of a school that otherwise seems to have an excellent variety of course offerings. I'm a fairly liberal person; I usually support the political correctness movement, and I agree completely that non-Western culture is undertaught, particularly in this age when the influence of the Middle East and Asia on our politics and economy is larger than ever before. But German is undeniably a valuable language in the modern world---I would argue, far more important than ASL, Filipino, or Punjabi---and Latin, far from being a dead language, plays a crucial role in law, medicine, and the English language itself. To make them unavailable is, in my opinion, inexcusable.