On February 17, 2005, twelve U.S. senators successfully brought a resolution to the floor designating 2005 as the "Year of Foreign Language Study," (S. Res. 28). Citing a 40-year history of U.S. policy directives aimed at increasing the percentage of Americans who speak more than one language, the resolution concludes, "It is the sense of the Senate that foreign language study makes important contributions to cognitive development, our national economy and our national security..."
Those of us who know the crucial role multilingual abilities play in international understanding are pleased that Congress has sounded the alarm one more time. But we have seen similar efforts in the past. They tend to recur in 20-year cycles and in response to international crises. Beginning in 1958 with the passage of the National Defense Education Act it was the Cold War. In 1978, it was the hostage crisis in Iran. Now, we are responding to the September 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.
It was back in 1978 that Representative Paul Simon (D-Ill.) discovered that the U. S. was in violation of the 1975 Helsinki Accords that commit signatory states "to encourage the study of languages and civilizations as an important means of expanding communication among peoples."
Simon presented the case to President Jimmy Carter who established a Commission to investigate the status of Foreign Languages and International Studies in the U. S. I was privileged to serve on this blue ribbon commission along with 24 other individuals, including Simon; Leon Panetta, then a U.S. Representative; Fred Hechinger, President of The New York Times Foundation; Edwin O. Reischauer, Ambassador to Japan and Father Timothy Healy, President of Georgetown University, among others. Chaired by James Perkins, who was the Chair of the International Council of Educational Development, the Commission issued a report, Strength Through Wisdom: A Critique of U.S. Capability, in November 1979. Its recommendations were urgently needed then and - given the mounting crises we face now - are needed even more today. According to the report, our incompetence in foreign languages was "nothing short of scandalous and ... becoming worse." Our discoveries were appalling.
We found that a lack of language and culture fluency in our elementary and secondary schools resulted in broad ignorance. Forty percent of 12th graders could not locate Egypt on a map and some 20 percent could not situate France or China. Only 15 percent of American high school students studied a foreign language and even that number was declining. Just eight percent of American colleges and universities required a foreign language for admission and only five percent of prospective teachers at the time of our report had taken a course in international studies. Boredom and unimaginative teaching were cited as the chief factors responsible for the decline.
In 1978, fewer than one percent of the 11 million undergraduate and graduate students at our nation's colleges and universities were studying languages that were spoken by 80 percent of the world's peoples. When the hostage crisis took place in Iran, only six out of 60 foreign service officers could speak Farsi.
There are historic reasons for our poor performance in language acquisition. We have been raised to believe that proficiency in other languages is unnecessary, that others will speak to us in our language. We live under the erroneous assumption that English is spoken throughout the world. Combine these with the "melting pot" syndrome - still prevalent in 1978 - of assimilation at all costs, which discouraged pride in or knowledge of different ethnicities, and it's not hard to account for the problems we found.
Money was not a factor, since it would have cost the federal government a mere $180 million in new funds to create a program then that could have prepared us to meet the problems of today. Those funds would have enabled us to improve foreign language competency and cultural awareness at all levels, to educate our children to meet the 21st century, to address needs in undergraduate and advanced studies, to advance international research and teaching through academic and scholarly exchanges and to create an informed electorate through citizen education in international affairs. It was the time to confront major disasters in three crucial areas: education, to eliminate the moat mentality that separates us from the rest of the world; commerce, to be able to conduct business in the language of our clients; and diplomacy, to avoid dangerous misunderstandings through ignorance of language and culture.
So it was with a sense of déjà vu that I read the recent Report of the 9/11 Commission. In 1978, we suggested that "...racial and ethnic minorities...[could be] brought into the mainstream of educational and employment opportunities in the areas of foreign language and international studies, where they will make rapid, new and valuable contributions to America's capacity to deal persuasively and effectively with the world outside its borders." Then, as now, the CIA was in the embarrassing position of being unable to transcribe hours of accumulated taped information in various Arabic dialects.
While this may be "The Year of Foreign Language Study," we do not need to establish another Commission. I doubt its findings would be any more heartening. Perhaps this year, though, we can strive to do more than be motivated by terrorism and fear. Perhaps we can invigorate language learning for reasons of humanity. We need only wake up and join the human race by learning its languages and absorbing its cultures, hear the alarm bells, smell death where there should be life, listen to the agonizing screams of children without a voice, taste the food that millions do not have and touch those whocannot reach out to us.
With these principles as our priorities, it is not at all quixotic to speculate that we may be able to tackle present problems and avoid future ones without resorting to shock and awe tactics.
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Last Updated: 12/17/08