Participants in a "strategic languages" summit at Washburn University this week are right that Kansas needs to revamp and re-emphasize the teaching of foreign languages at the high school and college level.
Foreign language is not a state requirement for graduation from a Kansas high school, and summit participants were told that 60 percent of Kansas high schools offer only one foreign language. Few classes are available in the "strategic languages" such as Chinese, Japanese, Russian or Arabic.
The most commonly taught foreign language in the state is Spanish, which doesn't put students in a position to communicate with people living in the countries "where the action of the world is today," according to Bill Tsutsui, executive director of the Confucius Institute at Kansas University.
The participants in the Washburn conference are right that the demands of global politics and economics are forcing Americans to rethink their English-centric view of the world. It's true that much global business is conducted in English, but think of the advantage of knowing the native language of both parties involved in a negotiation. An American can deal with an English-speaking Japanese businessman, for instance, but what about the conversation that businessman has with his Japanese colleagues?
Americans, too often, have been in the power seat and felt no need to understand the languages or cultural nuances that play a part in the international business and political arena. Those days are over.
A statement by one of the speakers at the Washburn conference also raises an entirely different issue about K-12 education in Kansas. The Chinese, she said, "know a lot more about us than we know about them."
Unfortunately, the Chinese may know more about us than we know about ourselves, given the state of civics education in America. Three units of history and government are required for Kansas high school graduates, but the emphasis on reading and math may cut into the time spent on history and civics in lower grades. Too many students graduate from high school, as well as college, without a solid knowledge of the historical ideals that guide America's democratic system. While it's important to understand other countries and cultures, understanding our own is the first step.
That being said, however, every effort should be made to broaden language offerings at both the high school and college level in Kansas. The more traditional languages taught in Kansas high schools are Spanish, Latin or German. While there still is value in learning those languages, it's clear that there is a growing need for Americans to understand the culture and language of countries where "the action" is.