Analysis: U.S. needs for language critical

By WHITNEY JACKSON   |   Dec. 30, 2008 at 8:00 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- America's global competitiveness and national security could be at risk because of a failure to invest in critical foreign language education. Deficiencies in Middle Eastern and Asian languages pose the most immediate problems.

Language learning "is important for relationship purposes," said Shaheen Parveen, a University of North Carolina professor who teaches Hindi-Urdu at Chapel Hill. "There's an intense relationship between culture and language. So if you don't know a language, you can't fully understand culture." Military security is at risk anytime there's a lack of knowledge of languages used by threatening forces, according to a former U.S. intelligence agency linguist who requested anonymity.

As U.S. agencies help piece together the recent terror attacks in Mumbai, India, the former intelligence agent said he suspects there will be a greater need for Urdu, spoken in Pakistan; Hindi, spoken in India; and possibly Pashto, spoken in Afghanistan; or Dari, spoken in eastern Iran and western Afghanistan.

With more than 6,000 languages spoken around the globe, it's difficult to set priorities for learning. And higher demand for knowledge of regional dialects in hot zones like Afghanistan contributes to this problem, experts said.

The idea of language education for national security purposes got a lot of currency following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. At the time, experts said, intelligence information was collected, but it would sit on a desk because there weren't enough critical foreign language speakers available to evaluate it.

The Sept. 11 attacks were "sort of this wake-up call that we need to be communicating better in both directions with the rest of the world," said Catherine Ingold, director of the National Foreign Language Center.

Inas Hassaan, who teaches Arabic at the University of Maryland, said the United States, as the most developed country, shouldn't need a crisis to draw attention to the intense need for more proficiency in these critical languages.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the federal government launched the National Security Language Initiative in 2006, an interagency effort of the departments of State, Education and Defense, along with the director of national intelligence, to address critical language teaching and learning.

The ongoing initiative has lots of moving parts. Some are achieving relative success, including teacher exchanges and student study-abroad programs funded through the State Department. Another program, called Startalk, is designed to boost government-defined critical languages through summer programs that reach students and train language teachers.

But funding for Foreign Language Assistance Program grants, which help public school districts develop longer sequences in critical languages, shrunk from $2.6 million in 2006 to less than $200,000 in 2008.

And other 2006 proposed language initiatives, including a Language Teacher Corps and E-Learning Clearinghouse for foreign language education, were never funded.

Student enrollment in college-level foreign language classes rose 13 percent between 2002 and 2006, according to Modern Language Association data. The same time period also showed encouraging higher-education growth in the study of non-European languages.

But the number of students who take enough advanced courses to gain fluency is minimal, experts said. And this compounds the nation's language problem, because the United States does not have enough qualified instructors to teach many of the less commonly studied languages.

Greg Smith, 20, an Asian studies major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, plans to graduate with fluency in both Hind-Urdu and Mandarin Chinese. The sophomore said he's worried the nation isn't looking enough toward the future in terms of language education.

"We've seen the writing on the wall for at least as long as I've been alive," Smith said, "that Asia's going to be a much more important part of the global economy and international politics. I will be able to understand things that are not translated for the Western audience."


(Medill News Service)

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