That's the opinion of a cross-section of experts concerned that a weakened economy and heightened international tensions leave the nation in need of clearer communication with friend and foe alike. Deficiencies in Middle Eastern and Asian languages pose the most immediate problems.
"If the U.S., in the modern world, is going to maintain its position as a global leader," said Ken Gude, a former Center for National Security Studies policy analyst, "it's going to have to become more conversant."
An estimated 200 million school-aged children in China study English, according to a 2006 Education Department release. Just 24,000 of their U.S. counterparts study Chinese languages. The gap is significant.
David Gray, former Labor Department acting assistant secretary for policy, said one thing is certain to emerge from the retooling of the worldwide financial system -- greater global challenges to America's economic dominance.
It used to be that the United States could skate by with workers who spoke only English, Gray said, because they sold to a more concentrated customer base and the quality of their products was superior.
But now that countries like India are closing the quality gap -- offering products that are equally good or better -- U.S. businesses are forced to adopt new strategies.
"In a more competitive market where products are increasing in quality," said Gray, who now works at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, "we need to be able to compete on relationships and service, (and) languages are an important factor."
Technology and globalization are also boosting the number of players in competitive markets, putting the United States at a further disadvantage with countries where workers grow up learning multiple languages.
"The communication and technology revolutions make it imperative that we be able to communicate with people who don't speak English (primarily)," Gray said. "To make a sale, you have a great disadvantage if your competitor speaks the language of the customer and you don't."
Just 31 percent of American elementary schools (and only 24 percent of public elementary schools) teach foreign languages, and 79 percent of these schools are geared at basic language exposure, not proficiency, according to Center for Applied Linguistics data put forth by the Education Department in 2006.
"We are very unusual in the world's developed countries in our learning of foreign languages," said Catherine Ingold, director of the National Foreign Language Center, "and the tiny space it gets in the curriculum."
Less than half of American high school students are enrolled in foreign language classes, according to the 2002 Digest of Education Statistics, released by the Education Department in 2006.
Of those students, the overwhelming majority are enrolled in Spanish, and less than 1 percent combined study Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Russian or Urdu.
"By default, Spanish is far and away the most widely taught language in the United States," Ingold said. As the majority of U.S. education policy is driven at the state or local level, the languages taught in high schools are usually a reflection of parent demand.
Various agencies involved in national security, including the Defense and State departments and the CIA, try to combat America's lack of critical language proficiency with their own training programs for translators, interpreters and other officials who need these skills.
But defense and language authorities are calling for more systematic foreign language education efforts.
"It's necessary and important for the intelligence agencies to have late-stage intensive training," said Gude, who now works for the left-leaning Center for American Progress, "but that's just a Band-Aid" solution.
It's easier for students to pick up new languages and speak without an accent, experts maintain, if they're exposed at an early age.
(Part 2: new challenges, new needs)
(Medill News Service)
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