Spanish Class

Don’t Kill Foreign-language Learning

How can we prepare our students for a global world without foreign language instruction? How can we make America great again while destroying the programs our children need to compete in today’s global marketplace?

Originally appeared on the Huffington Post on Sept. 7.

With the flap over FLAP funding, Beltway bickering is once again flushing our kids’ futures down the proverbial plumbing to score political points today.  Every American, especially every parent, who understands the importance of foreign languages and global-mindedness to our collective future needs to be calling their representatives in Congress now.

The Foreign Language Assistance Program is the only source of federal funding for K-12 foreign language programs.  Costing $26 million total, the program supports thousands of school districts nationwide, including many in economically disadvantaged inner city districts that serve the children most vulnerable to global economic disruptions.  In New Haven, Connecticut, for instance, a FLAP grant is letting kids who might otherwise be condemned to frying burgers learn Chinese (which Bloomberg Rankings recently ranked as the world’s most useful business language after English) and Arabic (which the U.S. State Department ranks as such a super-critical language for diplomats that they offer Arabic speakers extra “points” when scoring candidate career fitness).  These direct career benefits to fluency in critical languages are in addition to the demonstrated benefits of any foreign language learning for strengthening academic performance across all academic fields.

Foreign language learning, especially in “critical languages,” thus offers real economic security in our troubled times.

The stakes have never been higher.  Businesses increasingly demand multilingual, multicultural talent.  Responding to that demand, Europeans often graduate from college tri-lingual. Most Chinese graduate speaking Mandarin and English. Latin Americans often speak Spanish, English and, increasingly, Portuguese.  Meantime the U.S. is the only industrialized nation where many – if not most – high schools and colleges still grant degrees with zero foreign language requirements. Even those with requirements often accept just a year or two of foreign language study, a minimal proficiency level that won’t get graduates far in the global marketplace.

Business guru Oded Shenkar, in his book The Chinese Century, predicts that the ability to work across borders and cultures will increasingly be core not just to global mobility, but to middle class status altogether, while the monolingual, lower-skilled poor of all countries will increasingly resemble each other, whether they live in Boise or Bangladesh.  This is our children’s future. We must prepare them for it by increasing foreign language learning programs.

In addition to individual economic security, foreign language competency offers much-needed political and military security.  The Defense Department and former President George W. Bush declared as much when originally authorizing the National Strategic Language Initiative (NLSI), of which FLAP is part, stating “the ability to engage foreign governments and peoples, especially in critical regions” is “an essential component of U.S. national security in the post-9/11 world….  Americans must be able to communicate in other languages, a challenge for which most citizens are totally unprepared”

The NLSI was funded under George W. Bush, not a noted internationalist, because he and Congress then understood that our national security is at risk when our diplomatic and defense communities lack foreign language skills. According to a recent article in National Review:

  • The FBI has a critical shortage of qualified translators, leaving 31% of captured foreign-language e-mails and electronic communication un-translated and 25% of captured audio un-translated.
  • The State Department has a serious shortage of personnel with key language skills, with some 30% of Foreign Service officers unable to meet the foreign languages proficiency requirements supposedly mandatory for the positions they hold.
  • Less than one-third of CIA’s analysts and overseas spies were proficient in a foreign language.

FLAP funding for 2011 was less than 4/100,000ths (.00378%) of the $530 billion in base defense budget plus $157.8 billion in overseas contingency spending provided to the Pentagon in 2011.  Many are up in arms that military spending might be slashed to just $472 billion in 2013.  But even at that lower figure, keeping funding for FLAP, which the Pentagon itself has declared critical to our future defense, is less than a rounding error.  As we approach the 10th anniversary of the terrors of September 11th, 2001, a national disaster we still have trouble explaining to our children, a disaster that occurred in part because our intelligence community lacked sufficient foreign language experts to keep up with the intercepts they had available, keeping FLAP should be a no-brainer.

Yet despite all we know about the importance of foreign language learning, support for foreign language learning has been hacked away again and again.  The devil’s-bargain Budget Control Act passed in August included mandated cuts in many areas.  Marty Abbott, Director of Education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, explains that “Already, higher education spending for foreign languages (Title VI) has been cut by $50 million, a 40 percent reduction from the previous year.” For the K-12 years, so crucial for foreign language exposure and education, FLAP is all we have left.

How can we prepare our students for a global world without foreign language instruction? How can we make America great again while destroying the programs our children need to compete in today’s global marketplace?

We must fight to keep foreign language in the budget as a critical component to our children’s success. Take action, now! If you care about and appreciate the critical importance of foreign language learning in our schools, call and write your member of Congress TODAY and tell them NOT to cut FLAP.

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan and Rebecca Weiner are both authors, international business women and parents trying to raise global children. Stacie’s next book, Go Global! Launching an International Career Here or Abroad, will be released this month and covers the critical issue of foreign language learning among other topics, including a chapter on working in China by Rebecca.