College students at almost every state university in Florida can learn to parlez Français, but they have a much harder time finding courses in Chinese, Arabic and Portuguese. With an eye on jobs, Chancellor Mark Rosenberg  is working to establish a Virtual Language Institute, a cooperative effort by all 11 public universities to expand foreign language education.
“We’re on the front lines of international relations,” said Rosenberg of Florida’s economy. The idea stems, in part, from the university’s attempt to align itself with the state economic development agency called Enterprise Florida. (
This corrects an earlier version of this article.) Rosenberg said that the agency now has offices in China, Brazil and Japan. The project makes clear in its list of top issues that it desires Florida’s students to have better proficiency in foreign languages.
According to the chancellor’s office, last year, Florida did $4.7 billion in trade with China, and $10.9 billion in trade with Brazil. However, only Florida International University, the University of Florida and the University of North Florida offer courses in Portuguese. Only the University of Florida and Florida International offer Chinese.
Rosenberg said that a committee is examining how Florida will expand instruction in these two languages as well as in Arabic, Farsi, Korean and Japanese. With 11 universities and 23 community colleges, he hopes that a virtual institute will be able to cobble together a program that improves capabilities in these languages. “This is about taking advantage of our available expertise and our economy of scale,” he said.
Rosemary Feal, the executive director of the Modern Language Association, said that unless virtual lessons are coupled with expertise that students can access on campus “it will only remain a virtual dream.” For students to learn, especially difficult languages like Chinese, they require intense cultural training and direct contact with instructors. When the instruction moves into a virtual environment, she said it still must provide historical, linguistic and cultural context.
“If you don’t have the context and just subscribe to this remotely, it will be hard to know what the outcome will be,” she said.
Rosenberg said that he recognizes the need for cultural immersion that he would also like to make more financial aid available to students “to go offshore” and study abroad. The committee will be making recommendations within a month, and Rosenberg expects to have a pilot project going next fall. Once they have evaluated the matter further, he may then go to the Legislature to ask for money to increase Florida’s growth in foreign languages.