Foreign language study vital to U.S. students

Politicians continue to preach the importance of global competitiveness if America has hopes of remaining an international force for good.

The words coming from Washington are persuasive; the record of tangible action is not.

Amazingly, not quite half of today’s high school students in the United States are taking a language that is not English, and most of them do not progress beyond the introductory level.

Most, by the way, study Spanish although the federal government has recognized the study of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi as essential to national security and business.

And our global competitors?

Twenty of the 25 leading industrialized nations begin serious study of the languages in grades K-5, while most America schools do not start the study of foreign language until age 14. In Europe students are required to study another language for at least nine years.

China and India, two of the world’s behemoths, are aggressively challenging the U.S. on the volatile economic front. Fortunately, the use of English is common in India.

Not so in China. For that reason more than 300 million Chinese students are learning English and 100,000 of them are studying in America. By comparison, only 50,000 students from this country are booking it in Chinese and fewer than 20,000 are actually studying in China.

Not surprisingly, schools and school districts around the country are rapidly creating Chinese-language programs because they recognize the significance of China’s growing economic and cultural importance.

There is a history of federal government support for language and cultural programs, but it is painfully inadequate by today’s needs and standards. Furthermore, there are about 10,000 foreign teachers working in this country to fill shortages in science, mathematics, foreign languages, and special education because we do not have enough certified American teachers to take these jobs.

Something is clearly out of balance.

If we are to continue to lead, as we must, the United States requires the needed skills to communicate in other languages and cultures. It must have the ability to talk with and work with peers in all areas of importance internationally.

According to Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, his organization has supported a number of international initiatives with China, like the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, which brings Chinese teachers to America to teach Chinese to American students. “America cannot compete if it cannot communicate,” he asserts.

Many of the day’s more attractive jobs require bilingual skills and that is certain to only increase. Few positions that affect the economy will be exempt, very few.

Bilingual skills are even in increasing demand for all professional sports.

The federal government has a real opportunity to bring about swift action by reordering some programmatic objectives.

It is encouraging to note than more and more progressive school districts are enriching support for the languages, and especially for Chinese. They are seemingly more in step with business and industry, and ahead of some who loudly purport to be advocates for the common good.

— Gene A. Budig is a former president of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and the past president of Major League Baseball’s American League.