Bush Push on 'Critical' Foreign Languages

On Thursday, President Bush and a bevy of government officials -- including the secretaries of state, education and defense -- announced a wide ranging plan to enhance the foreign language skills of American students.

January 6, 2006

On Thursday, President Bush and a bevy of government officials -- including the secretaries of state, education and defense -- announced a wide ranging plan to enhance the foreign language skills of American students.

Several college leaders applauded attention to an area that many view as underdeveloped in the United States. At the same time, others said that they needed more details about the plan -- few of which were released -- and some have expressed concern over the large Pentagon role in it.

Under the plan, President Bush will request $114 million in the 2007 fiscal year, with approximately 75 percent of that amount coming through the State and Education Departments, for the National Security Language Initiative, and the Department of Defense would allocate more than $750 million during the 2007 to 2011 fiscal years to groom skilled personnel in languages deemed critical.

To an audience of more than 100 college presidents invited to attend a two-day Washington summit, Bush described the National Security Language Initiative as a “broad-gauged initiative that deals with the defense of the country, the diplomacy of the country, the intelligence to defend our country, and the education of our people.”

“[T]his program is a part of a strategic goal, and that is to protect this country in the short term and protect it in the long term by spreading freedom,” said Bush. “We’re facing an ideological struggle, and we’re going to win.”

The president said that his administration’s short-term international strategy is to “stay on the offense,” providing troops, intelligence officers and diplomats with “all the tools necessary to succeed.”  

“That's what people in this country expect of our government,” said Bush. “They expect us to be wise about how we use our resources, and a good use of resources is to promote this language initiative in K through 12, in our universities.”

The president did not discuss with the college presidents the much larger language initiative, which is coming through the Defense Department.  

Bush also said that “a good use of resources is to encourage foreign language speakers from important regions of the world to come here and teach us how to speak their language.”

While the president did not provide details on who these foreign teachers would be, he did win points with college presidents by saying explicitly that there have been serious problems with foreign students getting visas to enroll at American colleges.

“It’s in our national interest that we solve visa issues,” said Bush. “We have been calibrating the proper balance after September the 11th, and I fully understand some of your frustrations, particularly when you say the balance wasn't actually calibrated well.”  

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to applause from many of the presidents at a State Department dinner Thursday night, said that “we as a nation must continue to improve our visa policies.”

She said that great progress has been made, though, and that “we are now moving 97 percent of our visas in just one or two days.” She added that “there are legitimate security concerns,” and stressed the need for institutions to help the government ensure they are met.

Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, noted that the United States needs to make sure that its institutions are especially inviting, as foreign institutions are becoming ever more competitive for top students. Rice said she often meets people in Saudi Arabia who introduce themselves by referring to their American alma mater’s team name, representing a special bond to America that can only be created in colleges.

According to the Department of Education, fewer than 8 percent of undergraduates in the United States take foreign language courses, and fewer than 2 percent study abroad in any given year. Foreign language degrees account for approximately 1 percent of undergraduate degrees conferred in the United States. The college presidents whom Bush addressed are in Washington for meetings with federal officials, continuing today, on a range of international education issues.

Department of State officials stressed the need to have more people master “critical” languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi. Officials, noting that fewer than 2 percent of American students currently study any of the target languages, said that they are critical to national security and cultural understanding.  

Rice noted that the “country made a huge intellectual  investment in winning the Cold War” and said that in recent years America has not made similar investments, especially surrounding the teaching of critical languages. She added that the countries where the critical languages are spoken “will define the 21st century. Nothing is more important than being able to converse with them in their native tongue.”

In that effort, some of the Defense Department’s $750 million would go toward improving programs in languages at the military academies and for ROTC students. Under the plan, the department will also launch the pilot Civilian Language Reserve Corps. Details of the program were not clear, but State and Defense Department officials said the corps should eventually have 1,000 people, many of whom could be identified in college.

The corps will require a four-year commitment, during which time a member may be called up to accompany a mission abroad “when we need quick assistance,” said United States Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen G. Krenke, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

Three-quarters of the $114 million that President Bush will request in the fiscal 2007 budget will go to the Departments of Education and State, and the rest will go to the Department of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence. Barry Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said the money will go toward adding 150 Fulbright scholarships annually for students to study languages abroad.

By 2008, he said there could be as many as 200 additional Gilman scholarships for low-income undergraduates to study the target languages abroad. The Gilman International Scholarship Program, established by the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000, offers an annual competition for awards for undergraduate study abroad.

A senior State Department official said that, within a few years, hopefully hundreds of students at all levels will spend time at “immersion centers” that would be developed as part of the initiative. Immersion centers would be located abroad and would be intended for short-term study by college students.   

The new programs could also offer some opportunities for college students after their campus days. Lowenkron said that a program “like Teach for America” will be developed to pair graduating students with unique language skills up with teaching positions at schools. More than $20 million in grants may be used to set up incentive programs for the teachers.

Additionally, $27 million would go toward creating continuous language study programs, beginning in kindergarten and going through graduate school, through the Defense Department’s National Security Education Program. That initiative will require a commitment to work in a government job for at least two years. Officials did not have exact details about the continuous programs, but they said that kindergartners would not be in danger of committing to government labor.

Lowenkron labeled the $114 million as “seed money,” and said that foundations and private investors are currently being solicited to provide more support. 

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, commended the initiative, even though little of the money  will go directly to colleges. “The clients will be largely students at high school and college,” he said. Ward also did not take issue with the fact that so much of the money is routed through the Defense Department. “Defense might be the only place in the budget with loose change. As long as it benefits students and scholars, in the short run, it’s okay with me.”

Ward added that “if we’re going to do anything in higher education in the next 20 years, we’ll have to tap more than one source of revenue.” He said he hopes to see incentives for universities to reallocate money for languages. “We can’t just expect the government to fund it all. We’re not in the age of Sputnik anymore.”

Richard S. Meyers, president of Webster University in St. Louis, which has campuses in nine foreign countries, said that the immersion programs are a good idea because Americans really need to study language in the context of culture. With respect to the National Security Education Program, Meyers said that, generally, he would hope new programs “would be more of an education initiative, and not connected with some kind of government commitment before you get your education.” Meyers added that he hopes the initiative will take advantage of cost-effective measures. “Webster’s on 44 military bases [in the U.S.] already,” he said. “It would be a very small step for us to expand these offerings.”

Peg Lee, president of Oakton Community College, in Illinois, said that she found it "very encouraging" that President Bush was placing such an emphasis on foreign languages. Oakton offers a range of the traditional European languages -- Spanish, French, German and Italian -- as well as Japanese, Mandarin and Arabic. Currently it offers four-semester sequences in the languages, including Arabic, which was the most recent addition.

Lee said that a range of reasons draw community college students to language study, and that "with every local business seeing itself as an international business," she anticipated continued growth and interest.

Lee also praised the president for focusing on the issue, and for talking about the importance of starting students at young (pre-college) ages. But she added, "I wish there had been less emphasis on defense [as a rationale] -- more emphasis on building the global community would have been good and not so much the 'we and them' stuff." 

Upon reviewing details of the plan provided during a press briefing on the initiative, Rosemary Feal, director of the Modern Language Association, said, “I’m really pleased that these issues have come to the president’s attention and he’s outlining steps to help Americans become competent in many languages. Any attempts to teach languages early and continue through advanced training are to be applauded.”

However, Feal said that she’s disappointed that it took an event like 9/11 for government officials to focus on language teaching in the United States. She also said it is important to get students learning languages abroad, but that she would also like to see more of an emphasis on teaching them at colleges and universities in America.


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