Wise to nurture 'heritage speakers'

June 23, 2008|By Catherine Ingold

Maryland has adopted a promising new strategy to deal with the U.S. shortage of skilled foreign language speakers, one that offers a model for other states. A new state law seeks to make better use of an under-valued language asset: immigrants and their descendants.

Many of these "heritage speakers" converse in a foreign language at home and learn English at school. This early bilingual experience helps them in mastering critical languages such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Chinese and Wolof, to name just a few. Heritage speakers represent the most reliable pool of bilingual talent as our nation plays language catch-up with the rest of the world.

Gov. Martin O'Malley recently signed into law a bill creating the Task Force on the Preservation of Heritage Language Skills. It charges the task force with making an inventory of existing heritage resources and recommending steps to use them better.

As simple as this may sound, it's more than others have done. Certainly, many current, vigorous efforts to improve our national foreign language capabilities naturally turn to heritage speakers when recruiting students and teachers. For example, the new federal STARTALK summer program has shown that well-educated heritage speakers make excellent and willing teachers of critical languages.

But to my knowledge, the new task force represents the first concerted effort linking academic, corporate, government and community sectors to harvest our wealth of heritage speakers.

In many ways, this approach goes against the tide. A number of public policies actually limit our options and make it harder to develop an adequate pool of language-capable speakers. For example, No Child Left Behind often minimizes classroom time that might be used to turn out students better prepared to speak critical languages.

Efforts to designate English as the nation's official language risk making us even more monolingual than we already are. National security and economic competitiveness require that we learn to communicate better with the rest of the world and not just assume that they'll learn to talk to us.

No state is better positioned than Maryland to demonstrate how a population of proficient bilingual speakers can contribute to the educational system and the economy. Many of our immigrants work in high tech and science fields or are prominent in other sectors. For example, nearly 14.5 percent of Maryland's population speaks a foreign language at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nearly 150,000 of Maryland's heritage language speakers are fluent in languages critical for the future, such as Chinese, Korean, Russian, Hindi, Persian, Urdu and Arabic.

Yet these skills diminish rapidly as families assimilate. As the new law puts it, "Speakers of heritage languages ought to be encouraged and assisted in maintaining, developing, and improving their native language abilities while improving their English skills."

The task force - made up of representatives from the legislature, administration, University System of Maryland, business and ethnic communities - will conduct research, develop recommendations and assist with their implementation.

The role of our immigrant work force in furthering international opportunities for Maryland businesses remains to be documented by the task force, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this role is already strong and could be developed further. For example, the federal government is the biggest foreign language employer in the nation. Many of those jobs are based in Maryland and Washington.

A preponderance of the world's citizens routinely speak more than one language. Students often begin foreign language study in the fourth grade. Research shows this early start strengthens their cognitive development and fluency in the language - provided instruction continues. Yet, many U.S. students in America wait another five years, even as fluency levels required for success in national security or the global economy grow.

Our foreign language education system needs an overhaul to prepare U.S. children for the challenges of this profoundly interconnected world. There are no quick fixes, but Maryland is taking a smart, practical lead by nurturing heritage language speakers.

Catherine Ingold directs the University of Maryland's National Foreign Language Center.

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