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Millions for 'Strategic' Languages

January 4, 2006

President Bush is expected to tell dozens of college and university presidents tomorrow of an administration plan to spend hundreds of millions of additional dollars on training in foreign languages deemed critical to the United States. Arabic, other Middle Eastern languages, and Chinese are expected to be a focus -- potentially providing for a significant expansion of study by American students, who are notoriously monolingual.

Much of the money reportedly will come from the Pentagon and will support programs at the U.S. service academies, programs for ROTC students, and programs designed to train civilians who might accompany military teams on missions overseas. The Defense Language Institute is expected to receive additional funds. Other funds -- for education at both the college and pre-college levels -- are expected to come through the Education and State Departments. It is not yet clear what the division of financing would be, although the Pentagon is expected to play a dominant role.

Details of the plan, which was first reported by The Baltimore Sun, were not available and government officials declined to confirm it. But some experts on foreign languages and on Middle Eastern studies reported receiving last-minute invitations to the meeting tomorrow and Friday to which the college presidents had been invited last month by the secretaries of state and education.

Some language experts are excited about the administration interest and say that the additional funds could provide a needed boost for their work. But others -- especially scholars of the Middle East -- are troubled by the Pentagon role in the effort. In many Middle Eastern countries, the reputation of the U.S. government is so poor that American scholars already face credibility problems, and the sense that the Pentagon is behind a major language drive could make that situation worse, these scholars say. Many other professors are somewhere in between -- hoping that the new programs can be run well, but nervous about the administration's motives.

"Having more Americans who know any foreign language is always a great thing, regardless of what employment sector they are in," said Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and president of the Middle East Studies Association. He predicted that some of those educated by the military in foreign languages would end up in business, in academe, and elsewhere -- better off professionally because they will speak Arabic or Chinese or other languages.

At the same time, he warned against false expectations. "Simple knowledge of language, put to narrow instrumental purposes, would not in and of itself solve the U.S. government's problems in the Arab world, as the example of Israel, which has lots of officials fluent in Arabic, demonstrates," he said.

Details of the new program are expected tomorrow, when President Bush speaks to a group of college and university presidents who were invited to a meeting in Washington. The meeting is expected to feature discussion of foreign students in the United States and the need for more American students to have knowledge of foreign languages and cultures. Many academic leaders, who have been frustrated by disputes over visa rules, have been encouraged by the meeting.

For some professors, the fact that more funds could soon be pumped into language programs is a good thing, whatever the source of funds. "Any efforts undertaken to bolster intercultural awareness and language studies -- whether by the military or other organizations -- must be viewed as positive," said Brian G. Kennelly, chair of international languages and cultures at Webster University, a St. Louis-based institution with campuses in Europe, China and Thailand.

As for the Pentagon, Kennelly said: "That members of the military might use language or cultural 'intelligence' in order to protect the interest and/or further the cultural hegemony of the United States is evidence both of the continued usefulness of language study and -- fortunately or unfortunately -- that old habits die hard."

Pentagon ties have been sensitive to American professors studying abroad for some time, and the issue is particularly worrisome for experts on the Middle East. But some say that a military tie need not be damaging to a program. Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University, and chair of the public affairs committee of the Middle East Studies Association, said that he takes a "pragmatic" approach and believes that professors should watch the new programs -- but welcome them.

Norton noted that scholars of the Middle East and Africa were deeply mistrustful of the National Security Education Program, which was created by Congress in 1991 and provides scholarships to students for study in countries "critical" to American interests. Students who receive scholarships must later complete a work requirement for either the Department of Defense, Homeland Security or State or for an intelligence agency. Technically, the program is affiliated with the Pentagon, but much of its management is by the Institute of International Education, a well respected academic group.

Norton said that he and others pushed for protections in the development of that program, and that it is doing good work. "The reality is that those fellowships provide funds that wouldn't be available otherwise," he said.

Similarly, he said that he could see scenarios where a push by the military for more ROTC students to study foreign languages could enable colleges to offer a broader range of courses. Enrollment demand drives hiring decisions in foreign languages, he said, and it wouldn't take a lot of ROTC students signing up for languages to make a difference in the numbers of sections or languages offered.

He added, however, "the devil is going to be in the details."

Other professors are much more concerned. "This is not really a good thing," said John C. Eisele, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic and an associate professor of Arabic at the College of William and Mary.

He stressed that the new program would end up having an impact on lots of students and professors who never take a penny from the Pentagon. "If you are studying in the Middle East as an American, you are going to be assumed to be with the military or intelligence, and that can be detrimental to academics," he said.

Ali Banuazizi, co-director of the Program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Boston College, said he was "concerned" about the new program. "Any time you put scholarly studies of a society within the military establishment, it creates those kinds of suspicions," he said.

"I welcome the attention to foreign languages, but we have tried very hard to show that language learning takes place best when it is within the teaching of various subject matters with the history, culture and literature of a people, and placing language learning within security studies, in the framework of security studies, I think is not good educational policy."

A major part of the Pentagon effort will be to expand language study at the service academies.

William Miller, academic dean and provost of the U.S. Naval Academy, said that Chinese is currently in its fifth year at Annapolis and Arabic is in its second year. Currently there is more student demand than there are sections, so Miller said he is pleased at the prospect of being able to add more language courses and more courses on the Middle East and other key regions.

Miller said that the demanding schedules at Annapolis place some limits on how much language students there will be able to study. "The problem we face in the services is that we have multiple requirements and we have needs for people who are very technically educated, and also for people who know a lot about history, culture, religion and languages," Miller said.

Annapolis now has some students who are able to take four terms of non-Western languages like Chinese and Arabic, and Miller said that while he's thrilled to see the interest, "you are still a beginner after four semesters."

He stressed that the programs at the Naval Academy extended beyond language to the history and culture of regions, and he said he was surprised that anyone concerned about foreign languages and cultures would have any doubts about the new Pentagon plans.

"I don't know how anyone could be nervous about having our military officers become better educated," Miller said. "We don't think it's sufficient to just learn about the language, but that they also know about the history and culture and religion and to just be more aware of sensitivities and dynamics. That is certainly in completely in line with a person becoming a better educated individual -- whether or not in uniform."

 

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