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Promoting Multilingualism in the U.S.

While students in many parts of the world graduate with proficiency in more than one language, that is typically not the case in the United States. An effort has now been launched to achieve multi-language proficiency for both economic and security reasons.

For decades, most foreign language instruction in U.S. schools centered around European languages, primarily French and Spanish, along with classical Latin and Greek. Teaching those languages was as much meant to facilitate appreciation of the literature written in them as it was to impart the ability to speak. Then, students who went on to become teachers typically taught those same languages, perpetuating a system of limited choices.

A Need for New Language Skills

The world has changed considerably since those patterns took hold. There is a global economy now, with multinational corporations from the west competing with counterparts from areas such as the Far East and the India-Pakistan Subcontinent. The superpower struggle of the Cold War era has given way to U.S. involvement in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. There is also the global war on terror, in which knowing what people in far-flung places are communicating, as well as projecting U.S. public diplomacy to people in their native languages, are critical aspects.

But by and large, foreign language instruction in U.S. schools has not changed with the times. Douglas McGray, an analyst at the New America Foundation in Washington, recently confirmed that in a study he published in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

"In the year 2000, 1,300 public high school kids were studying Chinese. That is just eight percent of the number studying American Sign Language. You only had 500 kids [in that year] studying Arabic, compared to 175,000 studying Latin. Two-thirds of [U.S.] high school students never study a foreign language, and if you look at college students, 92 percent never study a foreign language," says McGray.

The Department of Education says that overall, 43.6 percent of all students took foreign language classes in 2000, which was nearly a 39 percent increase since 1990. But Bret Lovejoy, of a Washington-based advocacy group called the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, says that despite that improvement, language proficiency is suffering because the present level of instruction is "too little, too late."

"One reason is that many states that have a foreign language requirement for high school students [to graduate] only require one or two years [foreign language instruction] at the most," says Lovejoy. "And we know, you can't become language-proficient by studying a language for one year in high school. We [i.e., the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages] advocate that language instruction begin in the earliest grades possible, hopefully kindergarten or first grade."

Many educators advocate early instruction because they say that younger children can better absorb the words and structures of another language because their brains have not become rigid in the ways of their native tongues.

National Security Language Initiative

Recently, the U.S. government has launched the National Security Language Initiative, which seeks to create a much larger pool of language-proficient Americans by starting instruction at an early age. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Farrell says certain nations and regions are of special interest.

"The government recognizes that there are languages that are really needed if the citizens of the United States are going to be able to converse and work with critical nations around the world - - China, India, Russia,Turkey, the Arab world, Iran - - those languages that are important to us in both an economic and a political sense, and also do not have a strong base of support [presently in the educational system.]," says Farrell.

Meanwhile, a similar effort to fund and promote language instruction has been launched on Capitol Hill by three U.S. Senators. But it takes an influx of teachers to make these initiatives work. Many of the instructors in third-world languages come from overseas. And that brings up another problem - - retaining them in the school systems.

Bret Lovejoy at the American Council on the Teaching Foreign Languages says the answer may be a partnership between schools and businesses. "When they recruit teachers to come over to the United States and teach Chinese or Korean or Arabic, there is a great deal of competition from American multi-national corporations that hire people away from education and increase their salaries greatly," says Lovejoy. "One solution is that corporations that want to hire these teachers provide some ability for them to continue teaching part-time as well as work for the corporation."

New America Foundation analyst Douglas McGray says that beyond economic globalization and national security reasons for learning a foreign language, there is something more fundamental - - expanding one's capabilities and outlook.

"When you learn a foreign language, it immediately makes you more curious about other parts of the world, " says McGray. "And that is a good thing for the United States. For anybody studying a foreign language, there's nothing like that first experience of needing it and using it and having it work. And realizing that it is a tool and seeing the tool work for you."

McGray says that is something many people living in smaller countries surrounded by others have known for years, and have used to their advantage. For Americans, this realization finally came about when technology reduced vast distances to mere fractions of a second. Now there is no turning back.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.