A language imbalance

Published:

The Kentucky Enquirer, Fort Mitchell

More than 200 million Chinese elementary and secondary students are studying English, a required course in all primary schools. Meanwhile, just 24,000 American students are studying Chinese.

As American companies fight to retain their dominant spot in tough global markets, the language imbalance could prove to be as big an economic issue as the trade imbalance.

But besides impeding commerce, the lack of foreign language skills adds to cultural ignorance and hinders communication just as the U.S. faces strained relations around the globe.

The seriousness " and growing implications " of America's pitiful foreign language program is evidenced by the Bush administration's 2006 creation of the National Security Language Initiative. The program has sent more than $80 million into U.S. schools for targeted study in Chinese, Farsi, Arabic, Turkish and other languages deemed critical.

"Deficits in foreign language instruction negatively affect national security, diplomacy, law enforcement, intelligence communities and cultural understanding," a top education official said in announcing the program. "It prevents us from effectively communicating in foreign media, hurts counter-terrorist efforts, and hamstrings our capacity to work with people and governments. Businesses are hampered in making effective contacts and adding new markets overseas."

... Fewer than one in four elementary schools offers any foreign language instruction, and those that do generally provide only fragmented or superficial instruction. Better than half of all high school students take no foreign language. And nearly 70 percent of those who do are enrolled in Spanish or French.

The languages the Bush administration says are critical to national security and economic development " Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Russian and Korean " combined enroll less than 1 percent of U.S. high school students.

The obstacles to schools expanding their language offerings are vast " shrinking budgets, state requirements in Ohio and Kentucky that allow students to bypass language study or get by on minimal coursework, narrowed course offerings and the difficulty of finding certified teachers and well-organized curriculum.

But despite the difficulty " and a tradition of Americans believing foreigners should interact with them in English " it's time for the nation to catch up to the rest of the world.

Doing it will take more than limited federal grants. Full fluency requires long-term, well-coordinated language study that starts in primary grades and carries into high school and college (where, currently, only 8 percent of students study a foreign language).

Beyond school, American children need foreign language exposure at home, via computer instruction, books and materials, and opportunities to interact with native speakers.

Raising state requirements is a critical step " albeit complicated by pressures to raise reading and math performance " as is offering alternative certification paths to strong potential teachers who lack traditional training.

Schools will respond to higher state requirements and increased parental demand for foreign language offerings, but there's a critical role for American businesses as well. Offering targeted financial support for teacher recruitment and training, curriculum and testing development, and language enrichment programs would be a great way to help grow a bilingual and culturally sensitive work force.

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