US: National-Security Concerns Spur Congressional Interest in Language Programs

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 28 13:54:00 UTC 2007

>>From the issue dated March 15, 2002

National-Security Concerns Spur Congressional Interest in Language Programs



Colleges hope the nation's global war on terrorism will translate into
more Congressional support for programs that finance and encourage the
study of foreign languages, especially those spoken in areas of the world
that are key to U.S. interests. The terrorist threat has provided new
momentum to those who have long argued that the United States needs to
develop more experts in certain languages, such as Arabic, Korean, and
Persian. Some campus officials, college lobbyists, and federal lawmakers
say that increasing the number of people conversant in those languages
also would better prepare the United States to compete economically,
assist in international relief efforts, and build strong relationships
with other nations. Much of the money that academics seek would come
through Education Department programs that support the study of foreign
languages. But some advocates also want Congress to bolster a
controversial Defense Department program whose main focus is to enhance
national security.

The academics and lobbyists say their case was made for them recently,
when Robert S. Mueller III, director of the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, publicly pleaded for people to help translate documents
written in Arabic and Farsi. The moment, some say, recalled October 1957,
when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite.
That event spurred federal lawmakers to put more money into supporting
mathematics and science education. "We hope that it's that kind of time,
that there will be a paradigm shift here," says Richard D. Brecht,
director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of
Maryland at College Park. "On September 11, the world didn't change at
all. Our understanding of the world did."

Record Appropriations Increase

Congress already has shown a heightened interest in the foreign-language
programs. For the 2002 fiscal year, lawmakers approved $98.5-million, a
record 26-percent increase, for Education Department programs that support
the study of foreign languages. President Bush has proposed an additional
$4-million increase in his 2003 budget. Some of this year's new money will
be used to double the number of fellowships for students pursuing advanced
training in languages that are spoken in "critical" regions -- Central and
South Asia, the Middle East, Russia, and Eastern Europe. The value of each
fellowship will rise to $25,000 from $21,000. The appropriation also will
finance three centers at universities -- which have yet to be chosen -- to
improve foreign-language training for teachers. Each center will focus on
the languages of one region: Central Asia, South Asia, or the Middle East.

Last week, members of Congress unveiled a General Accounting Office report
detailing how four federal agencies, during the 2001 fiscal year, suffered
from shortages of employees fluent in certain key languages. The report
recommended that the agencies develop new ways to attract people with such
language skills and to train employees to become more fluent. The report
said that the Army did not fill 146, or 44 percent, of the 329 positions
that had been authorized for translators and interpreters in five
languages it considers crucial: Arabic, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Persian,
and Russian. At the State Department, 21, or 6 percent, of the 370 posts
for people who speak Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese,
Japanese, and Korean went unfilled. And at the Department of Commerce's
Foreign Commercial Service, officials were unable to fill 39, or 55
percent, of the 71 positions authorized for speakers of Indonesian,
Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Turkish.

The FBI, the fourth agency in the study, does not set goals for employing
people with certain language skills. But according to the report, the
agency has said that shortages of language-proficient employees have made
it impossible to review or translate thousands of hours of audiotapes and
pages of written material. Legislation is pending in the Senate that would
seek to improve the training of foreign-language teachers and forgive
interest on college loans for students who earn undergraduate degrees in
certain foreign languages, such as Arabic, Pashto, and Russian, or in some
fields of engineering, math, and science. The bill (S1799), which Sen.
Richard J.  Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, introduced in December, also
would authorize new grants to colleges to offer math, science, and
technology courses in other languages. Senator Durbin and the bill's
bipartisan cosponsors want more students with those skills to study
languages so the United States can stay on top of innovations in science
and technology; Mr. Durbin said that federal officials cannot translate
some scientific documents that are available publicly around the world.

Finally, the bill would authorize $20-million for the Department of
Defense's controversial National Security Education Program to start
"national flagship" language programs at some universities. The programs
would provide an intensive education in certain foreign languages deemed
critical to national security. "It does our nation no good to have
sophisticated weapons programs if we don't have the scientists to back
them up," Mr. Durbin said on the Senate floor. "It does our nation no good
to have expanded intelligence-gathering capabilities if what we retrieve
sits untranslated. The United States must have the brainpower to match its

Administrators of federal foreign-language programs and college lobbyists
say the record appropriations increase, the GAO report, and the pending
bill signal that Congressional support for those programs has gained
momentum, for now. Yet they also point out that the rise in spending still
does not restore many of the Education Department programs to the levels
at which they were financed during the cold war. For instance, the number
of fellowships that are expected to be offered this year totals 1,473,
some 37 percent fewer than in 1967. "All of this money is really a drop in
the bucket," says Miriam A.  Kazanjian, a consultant for the Coalition for
International Education, a group of 27 national higher-education
associations that lobby for federal foreign-language funds. "These
programs have been sorely underfunded for the past 30 years."

Meanwhile, the University of Maryland's Mr. Brecht and others say they
were disappointed that Congress last fall did not approve the $10-million
they had sought to start the "national flagship" language programs through
the Department of Defense. Mr. Brecht's center is helping develop plans
for that effort. Even without the money, he plans to begin two or three
pilot programs by this summer, using $750,000 in funds from the Pentagon
program. Mr. Brecht says it can be difficult to persuade defense officials
to support the financing of an education program, but he believes doing so
is appropriate and necessary. "We want to get agencies concerned with
national security to pay the bill rather than the educational
establishment, where there are so few resources," he says. "Our motivation
is national security, not to improve education necessarily."

Worries About Perception

Students who receive scholarships or fellowships through the National
Security Education Program, which was established in 1991 and also
provides grants to colleges, must perform a period of national service
equal to the duration of their award, usually by working at a federal
agency that has national-security responsibilities. Students taking
courses in the proposed flagship-language programs would not have to
fulfill a service requirement unless they had also received scholarships
or fellowships through the national-security program. Some university
deans and members of international-studies groups continue to worry about
the global perception of scholars and academic programs financed by the
Defense Department. They say that such links could damage amicable
relations between foreign institutions and American colleges and their

"We do not want to be perceived as an arm of the government with a
particular agenda," says Anne H. Betteridge, executive director of the
Middle East Studies Association, which since 1992 has urged its members
and their institutions to refrain from using money from the Defense
Department program. "I don't think it's possible to be too careful." Ms.
Kazanjian, the international-education consultant, says colleges would be
wise to seek funds through both the Education Department and the Defense
Department. University officials could then choose which programs to use.
"There's so much to be done and so many resources that we need,"  she
says. "The more funds we can get, the better."

While the current outlook is good, advocates say they are still not sure
if Congress and President Bush are deeply committed to long-term spending
on foreign-language programs. Mr. Bush, for instance, has proposed
eliminating funds in the 2003 fiscal year for a program that supports
teacher training and foreign-language education at elementary and
secondary schools. Some say such a move would hurt efforts to build a pool
of students interested in studying other languages. J. David Edwards,
executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages, a
coalition of groups that represent foreign-language professionals, says he
holds out hope that September 11 may be able to spark another effort to
improve national security through academic programs. "The mood's right,"
he says. "On a good day, I would say it is possible that this would be
another Sputnik." Section: Government & Politics Page: A26


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