US: Academics Talk With Government Representatives About Creating a National Language Policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jan 8 18:08:21 UTC 2009

Academics Talk With Government Representatives About Creating a
National Language Policy

Washington, April 28, 2008

A professor of German took one more step in bringing experts together
to work on developing a national language policy on Wednesday. An
invitation-only conference held at Georgetown University here drew
representatives from academe, the federal government, and
nongovernmental agencies who share concerns that the country needs to
improve its linguistic resources. The meeting was the fruit of a
nearly yearlong effort by Heidi Byrnes, a German professor at
Georgetown and editor of the Perspectives column in The Modern
Language Journal.  The conference accomplished more than what
participants agreed was a much-needed dialogue about how the country
can build its linguistic competencies to meet its military,
intelligence, diplomatic, and economic needs. It also resulted in the
formation of a panel that has been charged with developing a national
foreign-language-policy platform and creating a roundtable at the
National Academies to discuss foreign-language policy.

"Recent societal and sociopolitical developments and specific
decisions on the part of various governmental agencies have laid bare
the fact that the foreign-language field ... has very little voice in
developing and implementing a comprehensive strategic plan necessary
to create a language and area-studies-competent citizen for the 21st
century," said Ms. Byrnes. Ms. Byrnes handpicked the 40 attendees at
the conference—which included leaders of the professional disciplinary
associations, representatives of the Departments of Defense,
Education, and State, and other language and linguistics
professionals—and asked them to consider what governmental policies
and structures might be needed to improve foreign-language competency
in the United States.

Wednesday's conference was the culmination of a series of panels
moderated by Ms. Byrnes at recent national conferences, including
those of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages,
the Modern Language Association, and the American Association for
Applied Linguistics. Although those who attended Wednesday's
conference have similar work and goals, said Ms. Byrnes, it was the
first time many of those individuals had sat in a room together.  One
of the participants, Lyle F. Bachman, professor and chair of applied
linguistics at the University of California at Los Angeles, said he
could feel the enthusiasm on Wednesday. "Different groups are talking
to each other, and they don't always talk together even though they're
all in the business of promoting modern language."

Sputnik for Languages

The economic pressures of globalization and the Bush administration's
emphasis on "national-security languages" after September 11, 2001,
have both proven to be strong impetuses for heightened interest in
foreign languages. Ms. Byrnes and her colleagues hope that, by gaining
advocates within government, foreign languages might take a place of
national prominence in education the way science and technology did in
the post-Sputnik era.
"If we talk about a Sputnik moment, we should also talk about the kind
of resources the Sputnik moment got," said Ms. Byrnes. "Fifty years
later, in an era of migration, multiculturalism, and globalization, a
similar argument might be made for preparing a citizenry" with
language and multicultural skills, she said.

The conference also builds on momentum created by recent reports and
studies of foreign-language training in the United States which have
surveyed problems and proposed solutions. A March 2007 report by the
National Research Council of the National Academies, for instance,
recommended the creation of a high-level position at the Department of
Education to oversee foreign-language education. The Modern Language
Association's 2007 report on foreign languages focused on the need to
restructure university language departments to better integrate
language learning across the curriculum. And an earlier 2006 study by
the Council for Economic Development emphasized the importance of
foreign language education in preparing a globally competitive work

Following a general discussion, attendees at Wednesday's conference
broke into small groups to imagine what a national foreign-language
and international-studies curriculum might look like, how to engage a
national discussion about the importance of language education, what
role academics should have in leading that discussion, and which other
constituencies might be tapped for support and funds. Ms. Byrnes has
solicited essays on those topics from members of the group to be
published in the December 2008 issue of The Modern Language Journal.

Panel Created

The meeting ended with the creation of a committee made up of
representatives of several professional associations that would
highlight the concerns of academics involved in foreign-language and
international education to political and business leaders, and help
adopt some of the ideas discussed at the conference. The seven-person
committee will include representatives from the American Council on
the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the American Association of
Teachers of German, the Modern Language Association, the National
Foreign Language Center, the Center for Applied Linguistics, and the
Interagency Language Roundtable. Mr. Bachman, of UCLA, was also named
to the committee. The group will identify resources to create a
roundtable discussion on foreign language policy at the National
Academies before a new U.S. president is inaugurated in 2009.

The conference's attendees represented a spectrum of interests, and
many appeared hopeful that the conversation at Georgetown might spur
other discussions on larger, more-public platforms, including the
National Academies. "We've had a yearlong moveable feast of a national
summit," said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern
Language Association, of Ms. Byrnes's efforts. "Only a maverick like
Heidi could have pulled it off. If any association had tried it, it
would have been branded. We need to have a regular national-language
summit so that we can air these issues in a politically neutral

Another attendee said that the issue of language education should be
kept on lawmakers' minds. "I think it's also very important to figure
out how to attach this to the rest of the education conversation,"
said Stuart W. Elliott, director of the National Academies' Board on
Testing and Assessment at the Center for Education. "People are going
to be figuring out what to do with the reauthorization of No Child
Left Behind. Lots of things are being attached to that conversation.
If this is going to be part of the conception of what K-12 is all
about, and what the federal role and national conversation should be
about K-12 education, this has got to be a part of it."

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 28, 2008

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