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US Businesses, Educators Team Up to Boost Language Skills


Business leaders and educators often find themselves on opposing sides of the debate on political and social issues. But they are joining forces to press for greater resources for education in international studies and foreign languages.

Earlier this year a business policy group, the Committee for Economic Development (CED) issued a report called Education for Global Leadership. The report warns of serious threats to the U.S. economy and national security if the United States does not improve education in foreign languages and international studies.

CED President Charles Kolb says the report grew out of the group's concerns relating to international trade and economic globalization.

"There was a concern on the part of a number of people on the board that there are not enough young people in this country who know very much about the world outside our borders, combined with a growing recognition of the need to have more people in this country fluent in foreign languages," he said.

The concern, Kolb adds, extends far beyond economic issues.

"There have been stories about intelligence data that had been collected from abroad that remained untranslated because we simply don't have a sufficient number of people with the foreign languages skills," he added. "This is a national security issue, this is an economic security issue, as well as an education issue."

Few people are as well versed in the issues involved as John Brademas, who served as a member of the U.S. Congress from Indiana from 1959 until 1981, when he became president of New York University (NYU). Since stepping down in 1992, Brademas has been president emeritus of NYU, the largest private university in the United States.

"We need to encourage both government and the private sector to make available funds adequately to invest in training and educating Americans about other countries, cultures and languages," he said. "And when I say private sector, I refer to individual contributors, I refer to corporations, business corporations and private foundations, as well as the federal government."

But Brademas says private funding should not let the government off the hook. In the mid-1960s, then-Congressman Brademas sponsored legislation, known as the International Education Act, to authorize grants to colleges and universities in the United States for the study of other countries. But Congress failed to fund the bill. Now, Brademas says, the federal government must take action.

"This is not a matter that can be shunted aside and say 'Let somebody else do it or let the private sector do it.' I am all for strong philanthropic support and corporate support of such programs, but I think that the national interest is so directly involved that we must have serious federal investment," he said.

Brademas says the U.S. government should follow the precedent set in the late 1950s when a major investment was made in education after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in space.

"I remind you that during the Eisenhower Administration, we passed in the wake of the Soviet success with Sputnik, an education act which provided for federal funds for the study of science and mathematics and foreign languages and the study of other parts of the world, but we seem to have lost some of our momentum in that regard," he added.

The Committee for Economic Development is sponsoring forums around the nation to bring educators and business leaders together to focus attention on the issue. CED's Charles Kolb says the message is that foreign languages and international studies have to be treated as priorities.

"At a time when the United States is perceived to be and is the world's largest superpower and the world's largest economy, we have significant impact on cultural issues as well as economic issues," he said. "I think it behooves us to be somewhat humble in that position and not just assume that the rest of the world is going to see things our way or necessarily speak about them in English."

Universities and multinational corporations can be influential in encouraging people to study languages and cultures. But the CED report recommends U.S. students start even earlier, at the beginning of their schooling. It says this will be particularly helpful for students in learning what it calls critical languages, such as Arabic and Mandarin.