President Bush has launched a new initiative to promote foreign language teaching in American schools, from kindergarten on up. The focus is on languages considered politically and strategically important.
Speaking to a gathering of more than 100 university presidents at the State Department in Washington, President Bush announced a $114 million initiative to fund the study of languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi, Urdu and others.
The president said it is a way of reaching out to other cultures.
"Learning somebody else's language is a kind gesture," he said. "It's a gesture of interest. It really is a fundamental way to reach out to somebody and say, I care about you."
The initiative envisions starting up some new programs and expanding existing ones. The goal is targeted language training, beginning in kindergarten through university and into the workplace.
Many of the university presidents attending the Washington meeting welcomed the initiative, although some said the funding would not be enough for such an ambitious program.
John Harrington, associate dean for academic affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, agrees, but says the idea is good.
"The amount of money is modest, but the goal of trying to increase language training, particularly for some of the less frequently targeted languages, seems to be worthwhile," he said.
The initiative goes well beyond simple cultural exchange, however. It has been dubbed the National Security Language Initiative, and President Bush left no doubt, he considers it part of the war against terrorism.
"The program is a part of a strategic goal, and that is to protect this country in the short term, and protect it in the long-term by spreading freedom," he said.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, American officials lamented the shortage of proficient Arabic speakers to gather intelligence on al-Qaida. President Bush said that must change.
"We need intelligence officers, who, when somebody says something in Arabic or Farsi or Urdu, knows what they're talking about," the president said.
The military has also found itself woefully short on language-proficient personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, and must work through local interpreters.
John Harrington says his university has seen changes in language study trends away from Spanish and French.
"Arabic, certainly since 9/11, has grown dramatically," he said. "It's actually more than doubled in size. Chinese has also been a real growth language in the last few years."
Mr. Harrington cautions, however, that language training is a long-term process, whose benefits will certainly not be realized overnight.