Language Matters

Over the last several years, the discourse about the availability of language proficient professionals in the U.S. workforce has expanded beyond the international education community. Congressional members, heads of multinational corporations, and foreign policy experts have joined the dialogue giving a sense of urgency to a matter that has traditionally been viewed as an education issue, not a question of foreign policy. Where the conversation was once defined in terms of student learning and cultural competence, we now hear about language acquisition as an issue of national security and U.S. economic competitiveness. The challenge, though, has not necessarily been about getting the public to buy into the idea that these issues are important (“seventy-five percent of Americans believe all students should know a second language”). One of the most immediate issues in increasing the availability of language training opportunities is turning rhetoric into policy and providing funding to support those policies.

The Council on Foreign Relations recent Policy Innovation Memorandum No. 24 and their March 2012 report on U.S. Education Reform and National Security state the need for making these issues top priority on the U.S. policy agenda. They also offer a host of recommendations for how to implement reforms needed to train young people in less-commonly taught languages and issues of global importance. Funding for any reform, however, will rely heavily on congressional action in favor of internationally focused programming. Unfortunately, the most recent cuts to Title VI programs within the Department of Education demonstrate how steep the climb will be to get federal funding to support existing language programs let alone funding for new initiatives.

Creating a space for multiple stakeholders to strategize how to change the landscape of language education will be important. Generating the momentum that presses Congress to act will, however, be the only way to ensure there is a long-term commitment to making these opportunities available across the U.S.

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