U.S. tries to boost foreign language education for economy, security
Gannett News Service
Feb. 22, 2006

WASHINGTON - It has taken the specter of economic competition and global terrorism but foreign language study in U.S. schools and universities is chic once again.

Chinese language immersion programs have sprouted up in Oregon, North Carolina and other places. Arabic studies, traditionally concentrated in Michigan schools, are starting to fan out to other states. The College Board will launch Advanced Placement programs in Chinese and Japanese at high schools next year and plans a Russian program in the near future.

"It seems like every business is trying to set up shop in China, (so) it looks like your employment potential would be so much better if you're fluent in Mandarin," said Betty Bristock of Portland, Ore., whose sixth-grade daughter, Rachael, has been in a Chinese immersion program since kindergarten. "It's a language of the future."

Yet all this seemingly good news is really a sign of how far foreign language study needs to develop in a country that demands immigrants master English while doing little to push such cultural pursuits among its own citizens, experts say.

"Someone who speaks three languages is trilingual. Someone who speaks two languages is bilingual. Someone who speaks one language is American,"
quipped Charles Kolb, president of the nonprofit Committee for Economic Development at a recent conference on the issue.

Less than half of public high schoolers and less than one-tenth of college students study a foreign language, according to groups that track such studies.

Advocates say the situation in public schools is not likely to improve rapidly given the new emphasis on math and science education and President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative that, studies suggest, have indirectly forced a cut in foreign language classes.

Still, the president is touting foreign language programs, particularly "critical need" tongues such as Chinese, Arabic and Korean, as part of his newly unveiled National Security Language Initiative that would plow millions of dollars into schools, colleges and other programs to train students and teachers.

With countries such as China and India flexing new economic muscle and potential threats by Arab terrorists, Bush is hoping to train a new generation of strategically bilingual Americans. That need was highlighted last year when government inspectors said there were thousands of hours of spy tapes in Arabic that have not been deciphered because of a lack of Arabic translators.

But advocates say Bush is hurting his own cause.

Recent studies indicate that some schools have cut foreign language classes to concentrate on reading and math, the subjects that determine their academic standing under the president's No Child Left Behind initiative.

"They look around and say: 'What can we drop? Oh, foreign languages. They're not testing (those),' " said Nancy Rhodes, director of foreign language education at the nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

Kevin Sullivan, an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, dismisses that assessment as "myth." While No Child Left Behind does force states to make sure students master math and reading, states have the final say on how those standards are implemented, he said.

Frances Hoch, section chief of the K-12 program areas for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction agreed that the impact of the federal law on foreign language instruction is overblown.

Since the late 1980s, the portion of the state's elementary schools teaching a foreign language has fallen from 60 percent to 20 percent. But she blames that primarily on the loss of foreign language teachers who have had to instruct a soaring number of limited English-speaking students. Finding new foreign language teachers, Hoch said, has been "a real challenge."

Bush's plan calls for more scholarship money to encourage more foreign-language majors. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has a slightly different idea. His bill would provide government forgiveness (up to $10,000) for college loans as long as a student majored in a critical need language and went to work as a teacher or in a federal agency.

"We can neither prevail in the struggle against al-Qaida nor compete in the global economy if we continue to labor in linguistic and cultural ignorance," the congressman said.-