THE FRONT page of a newspaper or the TV news must seem like a foreign language to a huge percentage of K-12 students. Recent surveys of high school youths by National Geographic-Roper found in 2002 that only 17% could locate Afghanistan on a map; less than one-third could find Great Britain. Perhaps even more disturbing, in the most recent (2006) survey, just 37% could locate Iraq, though U.S. troops had been there since 2003.
While the rest of the world expects its students to be bilingual, or even trilingual, less than 40% of our youths consider themselves proficient in another language, despite the influx of immigrant students. It should not be surprising, then, that our young people are ignorant about the rest of the world. One of the primary benefits of studying another language is the knowledge one acquires of geography and different cultures.
A very revealing item in the Iraqi Study Commission report was the finding that of the 1,000 employees in the U.S. embassy in that country, only six were fluent in Arabic. Moreover, as our military moved from fighting a war to trying to win friends, it found itself terribly unprepared and inept in communicating with the people.
Until this century, the United States could thrive despite being isolated by geography and language. Today, knowing only one language and its culture is a national disgrace. And soon it will prove disastrous for our citizens, for the military, and for business interests.
Like so many challenges to our education system, policy makers are aware of the problems and are creating various answers. As with the shock of the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 in 1957, the federal response is to frame the issue as one of security. Fifty years ago the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) focused on developing greater foreign language capacities in this country because of national security. Remnants of these efforts in the Higher Education Act have broadened the purposes to area studies and more general language studies. But the K-12 sector has remained largely unaffected, at least by federal action.
In marches the military, again. The Department of Defense has launched the National Security Education Program to provide a language pipeline beginning at the K-12 level, awarding its first grant to the University of Oregon and the Portland Public Schools for a program in Chinese. Now, four federal agencies are cooperating under the National Security Language Initiative, and the U.S. Department of Education's Foreign Language Assistance Program has awarded $22 million to expand language instruction in Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Korean, and Russian.
Dependent on shifting world events, interest in foreign languages in our schools and colleges grows only in spurts--from Japanese, to Chinese, to Arabic. Meanwhile, real bilingualism never takes hold. In fact, K-12 policies today show an almost xenophobic attitude toward different languages--as opposed to taking advantage of the language background of immigrants and building on that capacity to create a future expertise that the military and business leaders say is essential.
Policy makers say the right things. Even the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act includes foreign languages as part of a core curriculum. But tell me one district or school that has increased its offerings of foreign languages because of NCLB. If anything, resources and time have been diverted from subjects other than math and reading. …