Learning other languages must be national priority

November 15, 2006|By Nancy E. Roman

The standoff between the United States and Iran over nuclear weapons, the military challenge in Iraq, the threatening trade war with China - the pressing issues of the day all call for dialogue and understanding.

Yet there is no dialogue without speech. There is no speech without language. And while the world is busy learning English, not many Americans are reciprocating in kind.

Three hundred million Chinese are learning English. By 2025, China will have more English speakers than the United States. Meanwhile, only 34,000 American college students are studying Chinese.

Roughly 10,000 American college students are studying Arabic, with only 300 reaching advanced Arabic each year. Fewer than 1 percent of American high school students study Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Russian or Urdu.

The trend lines are clear, but there is a tendency to dismiss them. English has become the language of international business. It is hard to go to any major international city and find hotel clerks and restaurateurs who cannot speak English. English also dominates the Internet.

The path of least resistance is to slip comfortably into a sense that English is sufficient - until it is not.

What we may be missing, as we bask in our ability to be understood, is that we lack the ability to understand. They get us, but do we get them? Chinese, Russians, Indians and, increasingly, Arabs have access to our literature, our intelligence, our technical manuals, our academic journals and our culture. We lack parallel access. We are choosing not to position ourselves to understand friends, foes, business partners or competitors.

In foreign policy discussions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the need for critical language speakers repeatedly arises. The Pentagon wants officers to speak a second language to improve ground operations; intelligence agencies decry the lack of officers who can speak critical languages; international businesses fret about competition with India and China and their hundreds of millions of technically skilled, bilingual workers.

Increasing the number of Americans who speak Mandarin, Arabic and other important languages is clearly in the national interest. Yet the American school system does little to expose its future workers, soldiers and diplomats to foreign languages when their brains are best able to learn them - in elementary school.

It is time to change that. A handful of school systems are on the right track. In Chicago, a Mandarin program evolved after Mayor Richard M. Daley visited China. It now teaches nearly 10 percent of the American students who study Chinese. In Charlotte, N.C., the Asian Chamber of Commerce was able to persuade the school system there to begin teaching Chinese. In Oregon, the federal government is helping to fund a K-12 immersion program for Chinese.

But we need to move faster. The most often cited obstacle to doing so is a shortage of teachers. As we move on all cylinders to recruit and develop language instructors, we should consider using new technologies to bring the best language teachers to the classroom - and to bring them early, beginning in kindergarten.

An idea for the Gates Foundation, which supports foreign-language instruction efforts, is to develop quality video instruction for children, patterned after the videos used for foreign-service recruits, and make them available to schools on an optional basis. This approach would not be as effective as tens of thousands of live teachers in classrooms across the country, but it could be done for a fraction of the cost and could begin now, allowing schools to expose children early, capturing even a small percentage with an aptitude and desire to pursue language instruction, while laying the building blocks for more-intensive instruction later.

Such a strategy has the added advantage of bringing high-quality teaching to schools in lower-income areas as well as to those in wealthier areas.

President Bush's National Security Language Initiative sets aside $114 million to create incentives for K-12 language instruction, scholarships and other good ideas. Congress should fund it.

But producing citizens who can communicate internationally is a task so important to the national interest and so large that it will require involvement far beyond that of the federal government. Parents, educators, not-for-profit organizations, businesses and local school districts need to make foreign languages a priority for students, rather than a luxury for dilettantes.

Languages should no longer be considered as part of the optional humanities. Instead, we should see them as akin to science and math - critical not only to crucial diplomatic and military goals but to competing successfully in a global economy.

Nancy E. Roman is vice president and director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Washington program. Her e-mail is nroman@cfr.org.

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