Tongue-tied: Americans lack multi-lingual edge
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Wed Dec 10 16:03:36 UTC 2008
Tongue-tied: Americans lack multi-lingual edge
by Whitney Jackson
Dec 09, 2008
WASHINGTON -- Unless America pumps up foreign language education, both
the nation's global competitiveness and national security could be at
risk. That's the opinion of a cross-section of experts concerned that
a weakened economy and heightened international tensions leave the
nation in need of clearer communication with friend and foe alike.
Deficiencies in Middle Eastern and Asian languages pose the most
immediate problems. "If the U.S., in the modern world, is going to
maintain its position as a global leader," said Ken Gude, a former
Center for National Security Studies policy analyst, "it's going to
have to become more conversant."
An estimated 200 million school-aged children in China study English,
according to a 2006 Education Department release. Just 24,000 of their
U.S. counterparts study Chinese languages. The gap is significant.
David Gray, former Labor Department acting assistant secretary for
policy, said one thing is certain to emerge from the retooling of the
worldwide financial system – greater global challenges to America's
economic dominance. It used to be that the U.S. could skate by with
workers who spoke only English, Gray said, because they sold to a more
concentrated customer base and the quality of their products was
But now that countries like India are closing the quality gap –
offering products that are equally good or better – U.S. businesses
are forced to adopt new strategies. "In a more competitive market
where products are increasing in quality," said Gray, who now works at
the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, "we need to
be able to compete on relationships and service, (and) languages are
an important factor." Technology and globalization are also boosting
the number of players in competitive markets, putting the U.S. at a
further disadvantage with countries where workers grow up learning
"The communication and technology revolutions make it imperative that
we be able to communicate with people who don't speak English
(primarily)," Gray said. "To make a sale, you have a great
disadvantage if your competitor speaks the language of the customer
and you don't." Just 31 percent of American elementary schools (and
only 24 percent of public elementary schools) teach foreign languages,
and 79 percent of these schools are geared at basic language exposure,
not proficiency, according to Center for Applied Linguistics data put
forth by the Education Department in 2006.
"We are very unusual in the world's developed countries in our
learning of foreign languages," said Catherine Ingold, director of the
National Foreign Language Center, "and the tiny space it gets in the
Critical language learning for national security
Less than half of American high school students are enrolled in
foreign language classes, according to 2002 Digest of Education
statistics, released by the Education Department in 2006.
Of those students, the overwhelming majority are enrolled in Spanish
and less than 1 percent combined study Arabic, Chinese, Farsi,
Japanese, Russian or Urdu.
"By default, Spanish is far and away the most widely taught language
in the United States," Ingold said. As the majority of U.S. education
policy is driven at the state or local level, the languages taught in
high schools are usually a reflection of parent demand.
Various agencies involved with national security, including the
Defense and State departments, and the CIA, try to combat America's
lack of critical language proficiency with their own training programs
for translators, interpreters and other officials who need these
But defense and language authorities are calling for more systematic
foreign language education efforts.
"It's necessary and important for the intelligence agencies to have
late-stage intensive training," said Gude, who now works for the
left-leaning Center for American Progress, "but that's just a band-aid
It's easier for students to pick up new languages and speak without an
accent, experts maintain, if they're exposed at an early age.
"(Language learning) is important for relationship purposes," said
Shaheen Parveen, a University of North Carolina professor who teachers
Hindi-Urdu instructor at Chapel Hill. "There's an intense relationship
between culture and language. So if you don't know a language, you
can't fully understand culture."Military security is at risk anytime
there's a lack of knowledge of languages used by threatening forces,
according to a former U.S. intelligence agency linguist who requested
As the U.S. helps piece together the recent terrorist attacks in
Mumbai, India, the former intelligence agent said he suspects there
will be a greater need for Urdu, spoken in Pakistan; Hindi, spoken in
India; and possibly Pashto, spoken in Afghanistan or Dari, spoken in
eastern Iran and western Afghanistan.
With more than 6,000 languages spoken across the globe, it's difficult
to set priorities for learning. And higher demand for knowledge of
regional dialects in hot zones like Afghanistan contributes to this
problem, experts said.
The idea of language education for national security purposes got a
lot of currency following the 9/11 attacks. At the time, experts said,
intelligence information was collected, but would sit on a desk
because there weren't enough critical foreign language speakers
available to evaluate it.
"(9/11) was sort of this wakeup call that we need to be communicating
better in both directions with the rest of the world," Ingold said.
Inas Hassaan, who teaches Arabic at the University of Maryland, said
the United States, as the most developed country, shouldn't need a
crisis to draw attention to the intense need for more proficiency in
these critical languages.
Solutions under way, but glaring language shortage remains
As part of the 9/11 aftermath, the federal government put forth the
National Security Language Initiative in 2006, an inter-agency effort
of the Departments of State, Education and Defense, along with the
director of national intelligence, to address critical language
teaching and learning.
The ongoing initiative has lots of moving parts. Some are achieving
relative success, including teacher exchanges and student study abroad
programs funded through the State Department. Another program, called
Startalk, is designed to boost government-defined critical languages
through summer programs that reach students and train language
But funding for Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grants,
which help public school districts to develop longer sequences in
critical languages, shrunk from $2.6 million in 2006 to less than
$200,000 in 2008.
And other 2006 proposed language initiatives, including a Language
Teacher Corps and E-Learning Clearinghouse for foreign language
education, were never funded.
Student enrollment in college-level foreign language classes rose 13
percent between 2002 and 2006, according to Modern Language
Association data. The same time period also showed encouraging
higher-education growth in the study of non-European languages.
But the number of students who study enough advanced courses to gain
fluency is minimal, experts said. And this compounds the nation's
language problem, because the U.S. does not have enough qualified
instructors to teach many of the less commonly studied languages.
Greg Smith, 20, an Asian studies major at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill, plans to graduate with fluency in both
Hind-Urdu and Mandarin Chinese. The sophomore said he's worried the
nation isn't looking enough toward the future in terms of language
"We've seen the writing on the wall for at least as long as I've been
alive," Smith said, "that Asia's going to be a much more important
part of the global economy and international politics. I will be able
to understand things that are not translated for the western
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