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Recognizing the Value of Foreign Language Skills

Recognizing the Value of Foreign Language Skills
By Karen Jenkins

Early last month, more than 120 invited college and university presidents gathered to participate in the U.S. University Presidents’ Summit on International Education, an event hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. The summit featured many of the major players in American foreign policy, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, as well as several members of Congress and other high-ranking government officials.

The meeting was an opportunity for President Bush to formally announce the National Security Language Initiative, a partnership between the government and the education community to promote international education from kindergarten through graduate school. The initiative, Bush said, would allocate $114 million in fiscal year 2007 to expand language competency programs. The programs would emphasize “critical need” languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and Korean — languages that coincide with some of the world’s most politically charged regions.

The Department of Education would adminster about half of the $114 million. The State Department would oversee about 25 percent, while the Defense Department and the Department of National Intelligence would manage the remaining 25 percent. But the program is still a work in progress. Administration officials stress that the $114 million is only for the 2007 fiscal year. But introducing language immersion programs in K-12 school districts nationwide, as the program envisions, would  certainly take many more years and many more millions. The Defense Department has already allocated more than $750 million over the next five years to support its own foreign language programs.

The statistics on language study in the United States are sobering.

According to the Education Department, only 1 percent of undergraduate degrees are awarded for foreign language studies. And only 2 percent of that group are studying the languages deemed “critical need” by the administration. Less than 8 percent of undergraduates take foreign language courses at all, and less than 2 percent ever study abroad. The National Security Language Initiative could help change that. Offering language courses from kindergarten onwards will develop a pool of citizens, diplomats and military personnel who are not only fluent in the languages, but knowledgeable about the countries and cultures where they are spoken.

Rice, an expert on Russian language and culture and former provost at Stanford University, acknowledged the power of language fluency and international education.

“As secretary, one of my highest priorities is to reinvigorate our efforts to connect America to the people of the world through education,” she said. “In today’s international system, the distance between here and there is getting smaller.”

The summit also addressed concerns about the difficulty of obtaining visas for international students after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. According to Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, the administration has hired 500 people to streamline the visa application process. Now, she said, 97 percent of applicants receive their visas within a couple of days. That is welcome news for many university presidents, as campuses have witnessed a steady decline in foreign students since the attacks. But the decline seems to be leveling off. The 565,039 foreign students enrolled in U.S. institutions during the 2004-2005 academic year represented a 1 percent drop over the previous year. U.S. government regulations that frequently erred on the side of security are only partially responsible for the decline. Other English-speaking countries, such as England, Australia and Canada, have expanded their international student funding to scoop up those students who may have originally been headed to a U.S. college or university.

The Bush administration should be applauded for recognizing the importance of foreign language fluency. President Bush has finally recognized the vital role of international education in the security of the nation, something the higher education community has known for years. It’s no secret that we blundered terribly by neglecting the value of linguistic and cultural understanding before sending troops into Afghanistan and Iraq. Our forces found themselves unable to communicate with the civilian population and were unfamiliar with their cultural values and expectations, leading to miscommunication, misunderstanding and animosity.

However, I urge the higher education community to be wary of being used by the government to further its military actions abroad. Supporting foreign language education solely for national security purposes is not the best way to develop a population that is engaged with its neighbors around the world. International education should instead be integral to policies that ensure all students have equal access to a quality education. In today’s world, the definition of a
well-educated student must include fluency in a foreign language.

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