U.S. Public Diplomacy Depends on Citizens Learning Other Languages

By Jenkins, Karen; Meyers, John | International Educator, May/June 2010 | Go to article overview

U.S. Public Diplomacy Depends on Citizens Learning Other Languages


Jenkins, Karen, Meyers, John, International Educator


IN SEPTEMBER 2009 Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) responded to a question during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding Arabic language capacity in the United States. He commented that the number of people with Arabic fluency in the United States was small and that the FBI had reached its limit in recruiting them. In response to the question from Senator Al Franken, Mueller went on to state that the nation is woefully short of speakers of Arabic, Pashto, Hindi, and other critical languages.

Mueller's answer to the Senate Judiciary Committee was not surprising. What was surprising was how quickly the questioning moved to another topic. There was no acknowledgment by Mueller, Franken, or members of the Committee of the seriousness of the lack of national language capacity or how to address it.

For the past several years, including as recently as last September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a series of reports documenting how the shortage of expertise in Arabic and other critical languages was affecting the capacity of the United States to conduct diplomatic relations, gather intelligence, and further its policy objectives. The tide of the GAO report issued in September, Department of State: Persistent Staffing and Foreign Language Gaps Compromise Diplomatic Readiness, summed up the findings.

We believe that at a time of global engagement that is economic, cultural, and diplomatic, it is increasingly clear that there should be a dramatic increase in the teaching of world languages in the United States. Across the country, however, this is not the case. In early September, The New York Times reported on the cutback of elementary language classes in the tri-state area of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Attributed to shrinking budgets, school boards are opting to cut language teachers, which means instructional time is less and the teaching of less popular languages is being phased out. What is happening in states along the Atlantic coast is occurring in school districts nationally. The ultimate result is that fewer primary and secondary school - age students will be formally instructed in foreign languages.1

At the postsecondary level, a 2006 survey by the Modern Languages Association revealed that language enrollment at 2,795 colleges and universities as a percentage of enrollments has fallen since 1965 from 16.5 percent compared with 8.6 percent the year of the study. The survey indicated that while language enrollment in real numbers had increased because of the growth in the overall student population, there were noticeable increases from 1998-2006 for varying reasons worth noting: growing importance of Spanish in the United States (Spanish language increased 25 percent to 822,985), rise of Asian economies (Chinese increased 81 percent to 51,582), and response to the September 11, 2001, attacks (Arabic increased 335 percent to 23,974). The real numbers are clearly too low to meet the critical language requirements of the federal government and business well beyond the foreseeable future. The problem is especially notable for those less commonly taught languages (or LCTLs) such as Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Pashto, Swahili, Korean, or Farsi, to name a few.

President Barack Obama has made it a hallmark of his administration to re-engage the world. In his first year in office Mr. Obama projected a powerful international image by chairing a UN Security Council committee on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, hosting the G-20 in Pittsburgh, and travelling to Russia, Ghana, France, Denmark, and Egypt to name a few countries. The president has portrayed a positive image of this country on behalf of all citizens. He has been a visible and vibrant reminder that each citizen has a vital role to play in the realm of "public diplomacy."

In a complex, interdependent world that recognizes the role of popular culture, Internet, communications, and service industries that include, but are not limited to, education and tourism there needs to be an encompassing advocacy for public diplomacy. …

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