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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – A paradox was evident at a conference this weekend on the future of international and foreign language studies, with educators excited about rising student and employer interest but concerned about the decline in federal and university support for their programs.

The conference, hosted by the College of William & Mary’s Reves Center for International Studies and the Coalition for International Education, focused on national needs and policy implications; the conference organizers plan to produce a white paper with policy recommendations. Throughout the conference, attendees asked questions about how they can make a better case to lawmakers and to university administrators about the fundamental importance of their programs, even as they acknowledged that a) on the one hand the case seems self-evident (a fact driven home when one speaker said that in the wake of 2011 federal funding cuts her center had to end support for the advanced study of several languages, among them... Ukrainian) and b) government policymakers have repeatedly issued calls about the importance of foreign language and area studies, but progress has been minimal nonetheless.

In a presentation on government needs and national shortages in foreign language and regional knowledge, Gail H. McGinn, a consultant and former deputy undersecretary responsible for personnel and readiness at the U.S. Department of Defense, quoted from Senate testimony given by her former boss, Michael Dominguez, in 2007: "So we are not going to stop screaming that this country has to take language seriously and we have to take language seriously because it is a critical skill now to success on the battlefield."

There wasn't much actual screaming this weekend, but there was both a sense of embattlement and a conviction that a renewed call to action is needed

National resource centers, federally funded university centers for language and area studies, are still hurting from the 47 percent cut to their budgets in 2011. In a survey of about 3,500 area studies scholars and students, Laura Adams, the director of Harvard University’s Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus, found that survey respondents were deeply concerned about the federal funding picture for their fields. Only 10 percent of respondents believed that universities would fully fund area studies programs on their own. Asked what would happen if there was no federal funding for their programs, Adams said survey respondents replied with words like “destruction, devastation and disaster.”

At the same time, Adams’ paper emphasized the need to not let university administrations “off the hook” and highlighted the twin trends of adjunctification and de-professionalization of foreign language teaching and librarianship as issues of concern.  

Adams described the trend of hiring native speakers to teach foreign languages regardless of whether they have formal training to do so and often on a part-time, contingent basis. "Employers see language Ph.D.s as overqualified when they can get language teaching (especially less-commonly taught languages, which often don’t have a well-established home department to defend tenure-track positions) for cheaper from graduate students or native speakers not trained in language teaching," she wrote in her paper.

Adams’ findings also point to a possible undersupply of library science students with advanced language and area studies knowledge at the same time that a large group of such librarians are approaching retirement. 

"Anecdotally, professional area studies librarians are sometimes replaced by someone who has knowledge of the language but no formal training in library science, so this may be an indicator that the professional librarian is on the way out in area studies,” Adams wrote.

At the same time there is concern about the adjunctification and deprofessionalization of foreign language education, conference speakers argued that there has been a rise in student demand. “The interest that students and parents in the United States have shown in learning languages exceeds our capacity to deliver,” said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association.

MLA data show that enrollments in foreign language courses at U.S. universities have increased to a high of more than 1.6 million enrollments in 2009 -- this despite the fact that the trend has been for universities to drop foreign language requirements in their programs. However, enrollments at advanced levels of language study remain very low: only 22 percent of all undergraduate foreign language enrollments are at advanced levels. Graduate enrollments in foreign languages are actually declining.

Feal’s paper, co-written with Martha Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and Dennis Looney, also of the MLA,  highlights Arabic as illustrative of the issues at hand: “While there was a ten-fold increase in students of Arabic in U.S. postsecondary institutions between 1990 and 2009… the ratio of introductory- to advanced-level undergraduate students in Arabic in 2009 is 5:1, and the number of graduate enrollments in Arabic between 2006 and 2009 fell by almost 16 percent, something that does not bode well for the field’s capacity to accommodate the next generation of students or to meet any increase in demand,” they wrote. 

“More students than ever before in the U.S. now have interest in and access to Arabic 101; we need to continue to develop and support programs that can sustain and deepen student interest beyond the elementary levels and into advanced courses in language and culture.”

The challenge of getting significant numbers of students past the introductory levels to advanced, professional-level competence – a goal that many students express – remains a daunting one. Yet presenters at this weekend’s conference argued that government and corporate employers are increasingly looking for graduates with advanced knowledge of foreign languages and cultures (even if, as it was pointed out, that expectation isn’t always codified in posted job requirements). 

A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Education identified 78 priority languages based on consultations with federal agencies about areas of national need. And in a survey of 836 business leaders, Shirley J. Daniel, the director of the Center for International Business Education and Research at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, found that 43 percent said they believed their overall business would increase a great deal if they had more international expertise available among their staff, while another 43 percent believed their business would increase somewhat. When asked about suggestions for improving business school curriculums, the executives overwhelmingly expressed a need for mandatory foreign language training and more emphasis on other world areas. 

Other themes highlighted at the conference included the interest in funding international education initiatives both on the part of the corporate sector and foundations, teacher training and the K-16 (and beyond) pipeline, and pedagogical and technological strategies for improving language teaching. About 250 people attended the conference.

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