Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Recognizing the Value of Foreign Language Skills

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Recognizing the Value of Foreign Language Skills

Article excerpt

Early last month, more than 120 invited college and university presidents gathered to participate in the U.S. University Presidents' Summit on International Education, an event hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. The summit featured many of the major players in American foreign policy, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, as well as several members of Congress and other high-ranking government officials.

The meeting was an opportunity for President Bush to formally announce the National Security Language Initiative, a partnership between the government and the education community to promote international education from kindergarten through graduate school. The initiative, Bush said, would allocate $114 million in fiscal year 2007 to expand language competency programs. The programs would emphasize critical need" languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and Korean--languages that coincide with some of the world's most politically charged regions.

The Department of Education would adminster about half of the $114 million. The State Department would oversee about 25 percent, while the Defense Department and the Department of National Intelligence would manage the remaining 25 percent. But the program is still a work in progress. Administration officials stress that the $114 million is only for the 2007 fiscal year. But introducing language immersion programs in K-12 school districts nationwide, as the program envisions, would certainly take many more years and many more millions. The Defense Department has already allocated more than $750 million over the next five years to support its own foreign language programs.

The statistics on language study in the United States are sobering. According to the Education Department, only 1 percent of undergraduate degrees are awarded for foreign language studies. And only 2 percent of that group are studying the languages deemed "critical need" by the administration. Less than 8 percent of undergraduates take foreign language courses at all, and less than 2 percent ever study abroad. The National Security Language Initiative could help change that. Offering language courses from kindergarten onwards will develop a pool of citizens, diplomats and military personnel who are not only fluent in the languages, but knowledgeable about the countries and cultures where they are spoken.

Rice, an expert on Russian language and culture and former provost at Stanford University, acknowledged the power of language fluency and international education. …

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