Learning other languages must be national priority

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Nov 21 21:46:12 UTC 2006

Forwarded from edling at ccat.sas.upenn.edu

 Learning other languages must be national priority

By Nancy E. Roman  -- Originally published November 15, 2006

The standoff between the United States and Iran over nuclear weapons, the
military challenge in Iraq, the threatening trade war with China - the
pressing issues of the day all call for dialogue and understanding. Yet
there is no dialogue without speech. There is no speech without language.
And while the world is busy learning English, not many Americans are
reciprocating in kind. Three hundred million Chinese are learning English.
By 2025, China will have more English speakers than the United States.
Meanwhile, only 34,000 American college students are studying Chinese.
Roughly 10,000 American college students are studying Arabic, with only
300 reaching advanced Arabic each year. Fewer than 1 percent of American
high school students study Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Korean,
Russian or Urdu.

The trend lines are clear, but there is a tendency to dismiss them.
English has become the language of international business. It is hard to
go to any major international city and find hotel clerks and restaurateurs
who cannot speak English. English also dominates the Internet. The path of
least resistance is to slip comfortably into a sense that English is
sufficient - until it is not. What we may be missing, as we bask in our
ability to be understood, is that we lack the ability to understand. They
get us, but do we get them? Chinese, Russians, Indians and, increasingly,
Arabs have access to our literature, our intelligence, our technical
manuals, our academic journals and our culture. We lack parallel access.
We are choosing not to position ourselves to understand friends, foes,
business partners or competitors.

In foreign policy discussions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the
need for critical language speakers repeatedly arises. The Pentagon wants
officers to speak a second language to improve ground operations;
intelligence agencies decry the lack of officers who can speak critical
languages; international businesses fret about competition with India and
China and their hundreds of millions of technically skilled, bilingual
workers. Increasing the number of Americans who speak Mandarin, Arabic and
other important languages is clearly in the national interest. Yet the
American school system does little to expose its future workers, soldiers
and diplomats to foreign languages when their brains are best able to
learn them - in elementary school. It is time to change that. A handful of
school systems are on the right track.  In Chicago, a Mandarin program
evolved after Mayor Richard M. Daley visited China. It now teaches nearly
10 percent of the American students who study Chinese. In Charlotte, N.C.,
the Asian Chamber of Commerce was able to persuade the school system there
to begin teaching Chinese. In Oregon, the federal government is helping to
fund a K-12 immersion program for Chinese.

But we need to move faster. The most often cited obstacle to doing so is a
shortage of teachers. As we move on all cylinders to recruit and develop
language instructors, we should consider using new technologies to bring
the best language teachers to the classroom - and to bring them early,
beginning in kindergarten. An idea for the Gates Foundation, which
supports foreign-language instruction efforts, is to develop quality video
instruction for children, patterned after the videos used for
foreign-service recruits, and make them available to schools on an
optional basis. This approach would not be as effective as tens of
thousands of live teachers in classrooms across the country, but it could
be done for a fraction of the cost and could begin now, allowing schools
to expose children early, capturing even a small percentage with an
aptitude and desire to pursue language instruction, while laying the
building blocks for more-intensive instruction later. Such a strategy has
the added advantage of bringing high-quality teaching to schools in
lower-income areas as well as to those in wealthier areas.

President Bush's National Security Language Initiative sets aside $114
million to create incentives for K-12 language instruction, scholarships
and other good ideas. Congress should fund it. But producing citizens who
can communicate internationally is a task so important to the national
interest and so large that it will require involvement far beyond that of
the federal government. Parents, educators, not- for-profit organizations,
businesses and local school districts need to make foreign languages a
priority for students, rather than a luxury for dilettantes. Languages
should no longer be considered as part of the optional humanities.
Instead, we should see them as akin to science and math - critical not
only to crucial diplomatic and military goals but to competing
successfully in a global economy.

Nancy E. Roman is vice president and director of the Council on Foreign
Relations' Washington program. Her e-mail is nroman at cfr.org.


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