Impediments to U.S. Push on Languages

Experts tell Senate panel that funding for foreign language study must grow and that emphasis on K-12 testing limits curricular innovation.
January 26, 2007

In their opening remarks Thursday during a Senate subcommittee hearing on the federal government’s efforts to develop a foreign language strategy, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) were in bipartisan agreement: The United States needs to significantly improve its citizens' foreign language skills. The problem, of course, is getting the funding and creating a national strategy to be implemented over the long term.

“What is alarming is that five years after 9/11, we are still falling behind,” said Akaka. He cited a finding by the Iraq Study Group , which reported that only 33 of the 1,000 embassy employees in Baghdad can speak Arabic. Only six, he added, are fluent.

While national defense has figured prominently in the recent interest in foreign languages, Akaka asserted that Americans lose an estimated $2 billion a year due to inadequate cultural understanding, a figure he did not explain.

Voinovich picked up on both themes, noting that after 9/11, the federal government had to put out a public call for language speakers of Farsi and Arabic because agencies did not have enough on staff. “I was outraged that when I heard that,” he said. “The need for critical languages is not an abstraction; it is important for national security and business.”

The hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia focused on federal efforts to bolster the language skills of the government's own workers, but those efforts have implications for foreign language study generally. The two panels of experts all praised President Bush National Security Language Initiative, unveiled last January, which attempts to improve language skills by directing millions of dollars to the Department of Education, Department of Defense, and State Department. 

However, some cracks appeared. Because Congress has yet to pass a budget for the 2007 fiscal year, which began last October, Holly Kuzmich, deputy chief of staff to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, said that the department has not been able to fund as many elementary, secondary and higher education programs as expected. The department is hoping to start dozens of these programs at universities that have strong foreign language programs, with the idea that they can be harnessed to strengthen academic standards in K-12.

Her statement caught the notice of Michael Dominguez, principal deputy under secretary of defense for personal readiness, in the Department of Defense. “The Department of Education needs to take those K-16 pipelines and expand them all across the country,” he said.

Rita Oleksak, president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, agreed that the Education Department has been constrained. “While the Department of Education has redirected some of its existing resources, it does not have the authorizing legislation it needs to implement all the education-based activities envisioned by [the president's language effort],” she said in her testimony. “Too much of [the language initiative] is reprogramming of existing resources without … additional funding needed to drive systematic change.”

The president’s No Child Left Behind program came in for criticism from multiple panelists, who said that the focus on standardized testing was impeding the ability to add languages to curriculums. “Foreign languages are being left out due to No Child Left Behind,” said Michael Petro, vice president at the Committee for Economic Development. “This trend must reverse.”

“Foreign languages are not included in required testing,” Oleksak said. “Therefore they are often not included as a core subject in the curriculum.”

Almost every panelist acknowledged that bolstering the U.S. grasp of foreign languages will require years of commitment, and most importantly, a longterm budget strategy that does not yet seem to exist.

“Language needs to be seen as meat and potatoes … not just a tasty dessert,” said Diane Birckbichler, director of the foreign language center at Ohio State University.

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