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Rep. Rush Holt Headshot

Why Foreign Language Education Matters

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Imagine a storeroom full of hundreds of hours of audio recordings and documents in Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, or Korean. The materials might hold the clues to prevent a future terrorist attack or help American intelligence officials finally locate Osama bin Laden, only a handful have been translated because a lack of trained linguists.

We have those storerooms now. We lack these translators now.

Such troves of untranslated materials exist, and in at least one case FBI officials admitted that they destroyed a storeroom of documents before they were even translated.

The problem is not only in the area of national defense. Our companies lose international contracts to competitors, our scientists miss important collaborations, international assistance organizations fail to understand local customs critical to advancing America's interests, and average Americans are deprived of a cultural enrichment in their lives.

Illinois Senator, Barack Obama, recently expressed concerns about our nation's foreign language deficit saying, "You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language."

Senator Obama's opponents seized upon his remarks, making the claims that he was trying to force Americans to learn a secondary language. Such criticism is not only foolish, it is dangerous.

Rather than attack Senator Obama, I would hope we could reach a political consensus in this country that our government must change course and stop undervaluing and under-investing in foreign language education. Leaders from both parties should recognize the issue's importance and bring forth strategies to increase our interest and our ability in foreign languages.

Some members of the public and media might question why, with our unparalleled military and economic might, would Americans need to learn the languages of the world. Doesn't everyone speak English anyway? It is no exaggeration to say that bolstering foreign language education for ensuing generations is vital to our nation's economic and national security.

Our national security is heavily dependent on translators, specialists, and interpreters within the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, and the military. Prior to September 11, 2001 our intelligence community was at only 30 percent readiness in languages critical to national security. The government revealed after the 9/11 attacks that it had a 123,000-hour backlog of Arabic language recordings waiting to be analyzed. Five years after the attacks, news reports demonstrated that only 33 FBI agents had limited proficiency in Arabic, and "none of them work in the sections of the bureau that coordinate investigations of international terrorism."

Our ability to compete in the global marketplace -- one in which China and India continue to rise - is dependent on our knowledge of other languages and cultures. Already, China claims to be the second largest English-speaking nation in the world. As the non-partisan Committee for Economic Development wrote in a 2006 report, "Many small- and medium-sized businesses from New England to the Pacific Northwest are now finding it necessary to do business in the languages and cultural environments of the world's emerging markets." Still, the same report cited a study showing that 30 percent of large U.S. corporations believed they failed to exploit fully their international business opportunities due to insufficient personnel with international skills.

Recognizing the importance of foreign language understanding has not been -- nor should it be -- a liberal or Democratic viewpoint. In speeches, President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have shared the view that the U.S. should do more to support foreign language education.

In 2005, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page approvingly cited a report published by the Department of Defense that recommended "immediate...engagement by public, private and government agencies to improve the nation's foreign language and cultural competency." That same report noted that after September 11, 2001, Americans were "caught flat-footed, unprepared to confront Al Quada terrorists."

Language learning is a long-term process; unfortunately there is no short-cut to acquiring fluency in a foreign tongue. It takes hard work, individual commitment, and the proper institutional support. We must ensure that we increase the supply line of students who have strong language skills.

The 110th Congress has taken steps to confront this problem. We passed legislation, based on language I wrote, to create upfront tuition assistance for college students who commit to teaching critical foreign language at public schools. Over the last two budgets, we raised federal funding from $16 million to $44.7 million for the National Security Education Program, a language studies and cultural awareness training program for future federal employees.

We can still do more. We could establish grants for foreign language partnerships between local school districts and foreign language departments at institutions of higher education. We could create an Assistant Secretary for International and Foreign Language Education in the Department of Education, who would provide leadership in directing efforts aimed at international and foreign language education.

There are other approaches to strengthening America's foreign language education, and all of these should be discussed. Unfortunately, some would rather score cheap political points than have a serious discussion about an issue that directly affects our economy and national security.

Another Illinois Senator, the late Paul Simon, in his book, The Tongue-Tied American, once called the United States a "linguistically malnourished" nation. He said that almost 30 years ago. Our nation's appetite for learning a foreign language sadly still needs to be filled.