Critical language programs need support
The federal government has identified more than 70 “critical languages,” which are determined by a combination of their importance to American interests and the deficit of competent American speakers of these languages.
Nine of the 70 languages are considered so essential to our security and economic potential that Congress did something extremely rare — it allocated hundreds of millions of dollars over several budget bills to pay for, among other things, the creation of 26 “Flagship Programs” dedicated to producing speakers with professional-level fluency of these languages.
The UA’s Arabic program became the 26th flagship program this year, and it represents a major step forward in both our national commitment to education and the way we choose to interact with the rest of the world.
According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, only 18 percent of Americans reported being able to speak a language other than English in 2010, and most of those were heritage speakers. Most Americans whose first language is English never learn a second language. When an American does choose to study a second language, the most common choices continue to be Spanish and French.
It is essential that we learn languages outside of our traditional comfort zone, both to prepare us professionally for a global economy with major contributors in East Asia, and to dispel the illusion that American and European perspectives are the only valuable ones.
Not only are there too few opportunities and incentives to learn critical languages, as compared to Western languages, but students embarking on studies of Arabic and Chinese require more support than those taking French and Spanish.
The Defense Language Institute within the U.S. Army has organized foreign languages into categories based on the length of study required for proficiency. Arabic is a category four, meaning it takes nearly four times as long to master as most romance and Scandinavian languages. For comparison, German is a category two, while Hebrew is a category three.
We cannot ensure students reach proficiency in a critical language during four or five years of university study unless we as a nation invest in these programs. It takes money to ensure students have the necessary benefits of small class sizes, professional and experienced instructors, individualized tutoring, immersive travel experiences and technological learning tools.
However, we don’t have a strong history of recognizing the benefits of foreign language learning on its own merits.
The U.S. first started funding the study of critical languages after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and our current programs were largely created in the aftermath of 9/11.
At the time, The New Republic commented about the bill funding critical language programs: “[I]t remains to be seen whether the lightly funded initiative will be anything more than symbolic.”
Their skepticism was well-founded. Last year, the funding for graduate students in Flagship Programs was completely cut.
But money spent on educating students to become proficient in Arabic is a strong investment, according to Sonia Shiri, an assistant professor of language pedagogy and the director of the UA’s Arabic Flagship Center.
“Their peers in the Arab countries will be working with people who get it — who understand the culture and the language and the context,” she said. “That’s a professional benefit and a benefit for the country as a whole.”
Even when our nation is in a moment of vulnerability, we must continue our support for students seeking an international and globalized education. Otherwise we cannot claim to be a leader in the 21st century.
Jacqui Oesterblad is a junior studying global studies, political science, middle eastern & north african studies. Follow her on Twitter.com/@joesterblad.