US Education Dept. needs Foreign-Language Czar

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 28 13:44:16 UTC 2007

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Education Dept. Should Have High-Ranking Official to Oversee
Foreign-Language Study, Report Says


The U.S. Department of Education needs a high-ranking official to oversee
its efforts to dramatically expand Americans' proficiency in foreign
languages and knowledge of international affairs, according to a report
released on Tuesday by the National Academies' National Research Council.
The report was prepared by a committee convened to review the "adequacy
and effectiveness" of the programs, which are supported under two federal
laws -- Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays Act.
It generally defended the programs, and their long-term and broad-based
approaches to training people highly skilled in foreign languages and with
expertise on other cultures. But it also called for more support for their
projects, which include university-based National Resource Centers and
Language Resource Centers, saying those programs should not have to
compete with or conform to more narrowly focused critical-language
initiatives shaped by current foreign-policy goals.

"You don't know what the critical language is going to be 20 years from
now, and you need a reservoir," Kenneth Prewitt, a member of the review
committee, said at a briefing on the report, "International Education and
Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing America's Future." Mr. Prewitt, who is
a professor of public affairs at Columbia University, said that reservoir
includes the academic centers supported by Title VI.  Between 2001 and
2003, the centers offered instruction in 276 less-commonly-taught
languages. By contrast, the Defense Language Institute and the Foreign
Service Institute offered instruction in only 74 of those languages,
according to the report. The committee found that the Title VI and
Fulbright-Hays programs at once directly support the study of foreign
languages and international affairs, and encourage universities to expand
those efforts, said Janet L. Norwood, committee chair and a counselor and
senior fellow with the Conference Board, a nonprofit business-research
organization in New York.

The committee, however, could not compile enough reliable, standardized
data to determine exactly how effective the programs were and how well
participants were learning. Limited oral examinations and self-assessments
are the most common methods in place, and both are "inadequate," said
Michael C. Lemmon, another committee member and a professor of strategic
planning at the National War College of the National Defense University.
Even more seriously, the financial support for both the Title VI and
Fulbright-Hays programs has not kept up with the accelerating pace of the
mission they were expected to fulfill, Ms. Norwood said. While
appropriations for Title VI programs spiked after the terrorist attacks of
September 2001, they have declined in the last few years, and support for
Fulbright-Hays programs has similarly dipped, according to the report.

Although universities have been successful in leveraging minimal resources
toward maximum gain, the committee agreed, they need a voice in Washington
to advocate for them. This national language czar should be a
Senate-confirmed, executive-level bureaucrat, someone with "clout" in the
Department of Education who reports directly to the secretary on whether
the nation's efforts in international and foreign-language studies are in
step with its needs. The official should also be an academic, said Karin
C. Ryding, president of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic and
a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University. "I think most academics
would be anxious to have someone with an academic background and a
background in language teaching and linguistics," she said in a telephone
interview. That person would be best equipped to understand the challenges
that professionals in the field confront daily, explained Ms. Ryding, who
was not on the committee.

Assessment, she agreed, is a problem. When it comes to Arabic, "there are
just not enough proficiency testers," she said. "There's maybe 20 or 25 in
the whole nation who are certified, and they are constantly in demand."
The report recommended that more research be done as to how technology can
help to improve assessment and build a common educational platform for use
across languages, Mr. Lemmon said. Committee members agreed that despite
uneven progress, a sea change had occurred, one that will not soon be
reversed. The launch of the Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, by
the Soviet Union in 1957 led to more Americans studying Russian. Interest
in Japanese and other East Asian languages grew with the strength of
Japan's economy in the 1980s. Now Americans studying foreign languages are
increasingly immersed in Chinese or Arabic.  "We've now had enough
shocks," Mr. Prewitt said, underscoring the committee's overall optimism.
"We're never going back to a place where we can simply tend our own

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