Archive for Thursday, December 15, 2005

Language education would strengthen U.S.

December 15, 2005


My niece, Lesly, says she prefers speaking English to Spanish. I tried explaining that she didn't really have to choose, that being bilingual doubled her girl power and that she needed to keep up with her Spanish if she wanted to be able to talk to her grandparents.

She didn't seem completely sold, so I broke it down into the language in which my 7-year-old niece is most fluent.

"If you're bilingual," I bribed, "you can make more money."

Her eyes lit up.

Yes, it's a bit more complicated than that. But with the Internet eroding geographical boundaries and our world shrinking, speaking another language is no longer a plus on the resume - it's a necessity. Growing up, I didn't even know anyone who spoke French, and now we're saying our kids need to learn Chinese. Most of us probably didn't even know that 2005 was designated as the Year of Languages in the United States.

Last month, a bipartisan federal commission reported language and cultural skill shortages in 70 agencies, from the FBI to the State and Commerce departments - crucial not only to our economic prosperity and international relations, but also to our national security.

Since 9-11, the FBI and CIA have struggled to find fluent speakers in what the government calls "terrorism-related languages." And before the attacks, about 35 percent of Arabic-language intelligence had not been translated because the agencies didn't have the manpower to do so.

Many U.S. companies also understand that a multilingual workforce is the only way they can compete abroad, so they pay to send employees to language schools.

Around the world, English is still seen as the "language of opportunity," which may explain why some of us don't feel a keen pressure to learn another one.

In South Korea, English-language villages started springing up last year. In Mexico, English is part of most school curricula, and, since NAFTA's signing in 1994, the country has seen an upsurge in new speakers. Koreans and Mexicans know that if they want to compete in the global economy, they have to learn another language.

President Bush's bipartisan commission reported that if we want to be globally competent, we need to start by having more college students study abroad. The Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program's goal is 1 million students studying abroad by 2017.

That's a good start, but if Congress is genuinely interested in this investment, it has to start paying for it. These programs are costly and are not available at all campuses, especially institutions serving low-income and first-generation college students. According to surveys, about half of college-bound high school students are interested in studying abroad.

Groups like the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages argue for a multilingual, multicultural America, but we still lack a concerted national effort.

"I don't think Congress is going to take action unless they feel the voters are pushing for this," said Bret Lovejoy, the council's executive director.

When the College Board asked 14,000 high schools whether they wanted to offer advanced placement courses in Chinese, they were shocked when almost 2,400 said they were interested.

A multilingual workforce won't happen overnight. If we want to remain a competitive force, foreign language study must be part of elementary and middle school curricula, when kids can absorb languages with more ease. We have to invest in programs that go beyond tourist talk and actually give students an in-depth understanding of not only language, but also culture and customs.

We have our own reservoir of languages in the United States, where more than 150 are spoken, even if less than 10 percent of us are fluent in two or more languages. And with our large immigrant student populations, we have a free language lab that, if tapped effectively, could benefit all students. In New York, with its large Arab and Chinese student populations, educators are pushing to have Arabic and Chinese classes taught at public schools.

(And here in Dallas, some educators balk at the idea of learning Spanish, even if the school district picks up the tab.)

We live in a less insular place. We need to make sure our children are prepared to move effortlessly between worlds.

Macarena Hernandez is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. Her e-mail address is


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