Amer­i­cans’ in­abil­ity to speak an­other tongue called ‘emer­gency.’

Harm seen to for­eign pol­icy

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ALEX ZIETLOW

The in­abil­ity of too many Amer­i­cans to learn or speak any­thing but English con­sti­tutes a for­eign lan­guage “emer­gency” that could end up harm­ing the econ­omy and im­pair­ing U.S. for­eign pol­icy, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey.

Only 20.7 per­cent of Amer­i­can adults can speak a for­eign lan­guage — com­pared with 66 per­cent of all Euro­pean adults who know more than one lan­guage, says “Amer­ica’s Lan­guages,” a re­port re­leased in March by the Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Sciences. The find­ings were dis­cussed this week at a brief­ing hosted by the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

Amer­i­can stu­dents have no na­tional man­date to study for­eign lan­guages, but nearly two dozen Euro­pean coun­tries re­quire high school stu­dents to study lan­guages be­sides their na­tive tongues for at least a year, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 Pew Re­search re­port.

“The wide dis­par­ity be­tween the Euro­pean or Chi­nese ap­proach to lan­guages and the U.S. ap­proach sug­gests that we, as a na­tion, are lag­ging in the devel­op­ment of a crit­i­cal 21st cen­tury skill,” the re­port said, “and that we risk be­ing left out of any con­ver­sa­tion that does not take place in English.”

Es­ther Brim­mer, the CEO of NAFSA: The As­so­ci­a­tion of In­ter­na­tional Ed­u­ca­tors, said that since hu­man­i­tar­ian crises oc­cur most of­ten in places where peo­ple don’t speak English, speak­ing for­eign lan­guages — es­pe­cially non-Western tongues such as Chi­nese, Ara­bic and Per­sian — is im­per­a­tive for U.S. diplo­mats and in­ter­na­tional aid pro­fes­sion­als.

Michael Nu­gent, di­rec­tor of the State De­part­ment’s De­fense Lan­guage and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gram, said a lack of knowl­edge of for­eign lan­guages can af­fect na­tional se­cu­rity.

“It’s very, very im­por­tant that the [U.S.] pres­ence when they’re work­ing out there, whether it’s [the De­fense De­part­ment] or State or any of the other agen­cies, that they un­der­stand the cul­ture and the re­gion with which they are work­ing,” Mr. Nu­gent said.

Right now, the in­abil­ity to speak a for­eign lan­guage doesn’t pre­vent some­one from be­ing ac­cepted into or ris­ing through the ranks of the U.S. For­eign Ser­vice or the mil­i­tary.

In ad­di­tion to a lack of re­sources, Mr. Nu­gent said, one of the chal­lenges is that for­eign lan­guages are not al­ways taught ef­fec­tively.

“Some of the teach­ing that hap­pened in the past was pretty bad,” Mr. Nu­gent said. “Our var­i­ous pro­grams are try­ing to get stu­dents to learn ef­fec­tively so when they grad­u­ate from col­lege, they’re not only able to or­der a beer, maybe.”

“We’ve been talk­ing about this emer­gency now for 10 to 15 years,” he said. “In our busi­ness, it is an emer­gency.”

Pan­elists said the prob­lems start with the U.S. ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Too many pri­mary and sec­ondary schools fail to pro­vide ad­e­quate for­eign lan­guage teach­ing, they said.

Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the U.S. De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, 44 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia face a teacher short­age in for­eign lan­guage cour­ses.

“We need to make sure that lan­guages are in­cluded in school cur­ric­ula, just the way math is,” Martha Ab­bott, an ex­ec­u­tive of the Lead With Lan­guages cam­paign, said Wed­nes­day. “I think we need to lis­ten to par­ents. They’re start­ing to de­mand it, es­pe­cially par­ents of el­e­men­tary stu­dents.”

But a poll con­ducted by the cam­paign found that while Amer­i­can par­ents equated learning other lan­guages with aca­demic suc­cess, they were gen­er­ally un­aware of how pro­fi­ciency in a for­eign lan­guage can trans­late into em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Ms. Ab­bott noted that the num­ber of U.S. em­ploy­ment ad­ver­tise­ments for bilin­gual work­ers had dou­bled from 2010 to 2015, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by New Amer­i­can Econ­omy.

The Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Sciences study con­cluded that “the United States has only fo­cused on lan­guage ed­u­ca­tion in times of great need, such as en­cour­ag­ing Rus­sian stud­ies dur­ing the Cold War or in­struc­tion in cer­tain Mid­dle Eastern lan­guages after the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of 2001.”

“A wiser, more for­ward-think­ing strat­egy would be to steadily im­prove ac­cess to as many lan­guages as pos­si­ble for peo­ple of ev­ery age, eth­nic­ity and so­cioe­co­nomic back­ground — to treat lan­guage ed­u­ca­tion as a per­sis­tent na­tional need like com­pe­tency in math or English, and to en­sure that a use­ful level of pro­fi­ciency is within ev­ery stu­dent’s reach.”

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