Can We Learn the Hard Languages?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Dec 31 14:50:04 UTC 2006

 Jan. 16, 2006 Reality Check

Can We Learn the Hard Languages?
By John V. Lombardi

To: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Education Margaret

Re: University Presidents Summit on International Education

A week or so ago, at the University Presidents Summit on International
Education, you honored us with an event delivered with class and style
uncommon in executive branch engagements with university presidents and
chancellors. As Im sure you noticed, we enjoyed the attention, respected
the intent, and appreciated your personal and effective participation, as
well as your mobilization of key actors including the President and First
Lady. As we all returned to our campuses to reflect on the messages,
themes, and programs discussed, and you return to the critical business of
government, a reality check on our conversation seems in order.
International education in all its many forms has been a major agenda item
in American higher education forever, and over the most recent 30 years or
so, colleges and universities have conducted a constant conversation about
internationalizing the curriculum and improving the campuses ability to
bring the world home.

This agenda, which reappeared in many of the comments by the university
and college presidents in attendance, is really not a federal obligation.
The task of internationalizing or globalizing our campuses belongs to the
institutions. If internationalizing is a major campus concern, like
teaching chemistry, the campus will find a way to do it because it will be
central to the campuss academic and student programs. If a campus requires
federal money to support a major change to its curriculum or to rethink
its purposes, the campus is not likely to be effective anyway. I would
recommend that you thank us for such insights, and return to the main
purpose of the summit: language skills.

Success in this proposed joint venture requires that both the federal
government and the universities speak clearly and precisely about what you
want and what we can do. We in the universities and colleges have much
experience in taking tightly focused government programs and diffusing
their intent to flow money into activities more central to our interests.
If you fund language and area studies, we will leverage the language
effort to get more resources for area studies, literature studies and
culture studies. These are good things, but they do not address the
national need you articulated at the summit, learning language.

Further, we in the colleges and universities are expert at avoiding
effective performance measurement. If the nation needs college educated
graduates functionally literate in a number of less commonly taught
languages, the only way to get this result is to fund programs that will
test the graduates. If you want us to graduate students with a command of
spoken and written Arabic, Urdu or Mandarin, you need to fund a program
that delivers money to institutions that demonstrate the functional
literacy of its graduates in these languages through standardized tests.
Otherwise, we will train people for you who can read some things in some
languages, have traveled and lived in the countries where some of these
languages are spoken, but who may or may not have functional usable

We are good at redefining objectives. If the federal government wants to
help create college graduates who have high quality skills related to
living and working within other languages, it must fund specific programs
in specific countries focused on the acquisition of testable specific
language skills. If we go to India, and live primarily with English
speaking communities, we will return with cultural awareness and many good
stories to tell about our experiences, but we will not have acquired
functional competency in a foreign language or culture. You must be
specific about what you want, specific about how you will know when you
get it, and specific about the test you will apply to validate the
learning accomplished. This is difficult in cultural studies, but it is
not at all hard in language acquisition.

If we struggle with clarity and effectiveness in our international
objectives and programs, our counterparts in the federal government
especially the State Department, the Defense Department, and some of the
intelligence agencies  send conflicting messages about the importance of
language and area studies expertise. While we hear that in-depth knowledge
of countries and languages is essential to the defense and prosperity of
the nation, we also know that the State Department and the Defense
establishment tend to rotate their employees from place to place, country
to country, language region to language region, devaluing in the process
true expertise in either language or culture.

We also know that the career track to high level assignments in both State
and Defense place a premium on generalist experience and knowledge and
little emphasis on high levels of expertise in any particular language or
culture. We are also unsure whether language competency is of any
particular advantage for positions within the Department of Education.

You could do some things to improve the incentives for students to think
of language related skills as major assets for careers in State, Education
or Defense. For example, you might institute a language competency premium
for mid to high level employees in the executive branch, a bonus addition
to salary for those capable of maintaining a high level of language
competency throughout their careers (tested on a periodic basis). You
might consider longer term assignments overseas or in region specific
offices or agencies as premium assignments with enhancements to salary or
other benefits that would demonstrate that the enthusiasm for functional
language skills is highly valued, much in the same way combat duty and
other difficult assignments carry a premium.

These comments speak to the task of making the skills associated with
uncommonly taught languages valued in the real world that our students
watch with clear-eyed intensity. They know that in the great American
Midwest, for example, the daily need to know someone elses language is
minimal. We can travel for days without needing to speak anything but
English. We see corporations hire language experts and culture brokers
from among the nationals of countries where they trade and work, not from
among the language fluent American college graduates.

Students see that only a few individuals in high government positions
speak another language fluently, and almost none speak uncommonly taught
languages. They see no premium for acquiring and maintaining a competency
in difficulty to learn languages, and so they leave the language skills to
native speakers, language and literature experts, and some area studies

To achieve your goals, you will need to help us focus on testable language
skills, incentives for careers that use functional language skills, and
support for overseas experiences that produce high levels of language

We had a wonderful time at your summit, and the two of you are to be
congratulated for what you are doing to improve education in the K-12
arena, facilitate the visa process, and address the constant challenge of
encouraging the exchange of scholars without compromising national
security. We are grateful for the respect reflected in the quality of our
treatment during the Summit, and we are all eager to work with you.

John V. Lombardi, chancellor and a professor of history at the University
of Massachusetts Amherst, writes Reality Check occasionally.


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NB: this story is almost a year old, but I just discovered it, and think
it's still relevant.  (HS)

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