US needs integrated approach to improve foreign language skills

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 28 13:35:16 UTC 2007

>>From news at 202-334-2138 The National Academies

US needs integrated approach to improve foreign language skills and
cultural expertise

WASHINGTON -- The 14 U.S. Department of Education programs designed to
strengthen education in foreign languages and in international and area
studies -- known collectively as Title VI and Fulbright-Hays -- have made
some progress but lack the resources necessary to keep pace with their
mission, says a new report from the National Research Council. And the
Education Department does not appear to have a master plan for these
efforts, which may not bode well for the nation's security and
competitiveness. More support from all levels of the U.S. education system
is needed to develop an integrated approach to improving foreign language
skills and expertise on other cultures, beginning in the primary grades,
the report says. Also, the Department of Education should consolidate
oversight of its foreign language and international education programs
under a high-ranking official who would provide strategic direction and
coordinate its work with related activities at other federal agencies. To
be most effective, that position should be a presidential appointment and
require Senate confirmation.

Universities should play key roles, partnering with federal officials to
create systems to continuously improve the programs, the report says. The
systems should help develop performance indicators and engage networks of
professionals in the field. "The nation's infrastructure for international
and foreign language education is weak at a time when the United States
faces unprecedented demands for globally aware citizens and
professionals," said Janet L.  Norwood, chair of the committee that wrote
the report, a counselor and senior fellow at the Conference Board Inc.,
and former U.S. commissioner of labor statistics. "The Sept. 11 attacks
brought renewed attention to this topic. However, a comprehensive strategy
is essential for building greater knowledge of world cultures and national
capacity in a wide range of languages."

Congress should require the U.S. secretary of education to issue a
biennial public report outlining national needs, plans to tackle them, and
progress toward goals. To produce the reports, the education secretary
should collaborate with the departments of State and Defense, the Office
of the Director of National Intelligence, and other agencies with relevant
projects, the study committee said. The Title VI and Fulbright-Hays
programs were created nearly 50 years ago following the Soviet Union's
launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. The surprise launch shocked the United
States, leading to large increases in federal spending on education and
scientific research. Over the years, the programs' scope has grown to
encompass undergraduate and graduate education in foreign languages,
international studies, and area studies, which focus on particular regions
of the world. The programs also promote greater use of technology, foreign
language training and research, and the recruitment of minorities into
international service professions.

Title VI and Fulbright-Hays have produced some positive results, the
report says. For example, they have boosted the teaching of more than 250
uncommonly taught languages, such as Mandarin, and developed instructional
materials that are used in the federal government, K-12 education, and
academia. And they have been a catalyst for foreign language and
interdisciplinary initiatives in higher education. But funding and staff
resources have trailed the programs' expanded mission, the report
concludes. In addition, national data on the programs' impact are lacking,
and there have been few well-designed evaluations. The Department of
Education is actively working on improving this information. It should
ensure that its new data system provides uniform standards for data
collection and allows comparisons across programs and over time, the
report emphasizes. And performance information should be publicly

Officials should improve how the programs assess the foreign language
proficiency of students, the report adds. Specifically, the Education
Department should no longer allow those who participate in the Foreign
Language and Area Studies (FLAS) program -- a part of Title VI and
Fulbright-Hays -- to rate themselves, a practice it currently permits. The
federal government should contract out for a project to find new ways to
measure foreign language proficiency and to use technology to improve
language instruction, the report says. The project should work on research
and development, as well as other issues. Last year President Bush
announced his National Security Language Initiative, which calls for new
and expanded measures to help increase the number of Americans learning
certain "critical need" languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, and
Farsi. The study committee said maintaining national capacity in a broad
range of foreign languages would be prudent, allowing the United States to
respond to new and unanticipated challenges around the world.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The National
Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of
Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.
They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology,
and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research
Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of
Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster

Copies of International Education and Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing
Americas Future are available from the National Academies Press; tel.
202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at
The cost of the report is $47.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50
for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain
a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed
above). In addition, a podcast of the public briefing held to release this
report is available at

[This news release and report are available at ]


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