College Park, Md.
Not quite three years ago Alaa Elgibali, a professor of Arabic and linguistics, was hired away from the American University in Cairo to transform the Arabic program at the University of Maryland's main campus here.
He has expanded enrollment to 185 from 28 and is helping to develop more courses on the languages and cultures of the Middle East, which will be housed in a new regional-studies center.
But the project faces two major obstacles, he says. Student demand is "25 percent higher than we can satisfy," forcing the department to turn away strong applicants. And there is intense competition for qualified professors.
"Many campuses are trying to recruit from the same pool," he says.
Five and a half years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, colleges are still struggling to respond to demands from the government, businesses, and students for more teaching of the languages believed to be critical to America's security and economic future.
Arabic is considered essential for representing America's interests in the Middle East, but according to the recent report of the congressionally appointed Iraq Study Group, only six of the 1,000 U.S. embassy employees in Baghdad speak the language fluently. Mandarin is vital for representing American companies in China, one of the world's largest markets. But in the 2003-4 academic year, the latest for which the U.S. Education Department has figures, American institutions awarded only 15 master's degrees in Chinese, and five Ph.D.'s.
While progress has been made, many experts say America's colleges and universities are still graduating far too few people capable of working in what have become known as the critical languages. Indeed, enrollments in foreign languages in general have hovered at between 7 percent and 9 percent of total college enrollments for the last three decades, half of what they were in the 1960s.
Leaders in language education point to several reasons: weak federal and state support, a lack of qualified teachers, too little commitment from some college administrators — and in the rarely taught languages, like Persian and Pashto, a severe dearth of teaching materials. More fundamentally, say many observers, American education, from kindergarten to college, gives far too little attention to foreign languages — much less than do schools and universities in Europe and other parts of the world, where it is common for people to speak two or three languages.
The consequences for America are sobering, according to numerous reports by the government, business associations, and policy groups: a shortage of people qualified to translate and analyze intercepted messages from terrorists, missed opportunities for American businesses, and, in general, a diminished capacity to engage constructively with the rest of the world.
Educators and business leaders who are concerned about language learning say what is needed is a fundamental shift toward giving foreign languages a more central place in American education. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, plans to reintroduce a bill to expand education in foreign languages and cultures at elementary and secondary schools and in higher education.
"At a time when our security needs are more important than ever," said Senator Dodd in 2005, when he first introduced the bill, "at a time when our economy demands that we enter new markets, and at a time when the world requires us to engage in diplomacy in more thoughtful and considered ways, it is extremely important that we have at our disposal a multilingual, multicultural, internationally experienced work force."
The federal government has acknowledged the problem, but many language-education leaders say its response has been lackluster, especially coming on top of years of decreasing federal money for language programs.
"International and foreign-language education has suffered from decades of inadequate attention and support," says Miriam A. Kazanjian, a consultant specializing in international education.
In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passed its largest-ever increases for the two main federal programs that promote foreign-language proficiency, both run by the U.S. Department of Education. Yet spending for the programs is still considerably lower than it was 40 years ago, during the cold war.
Programs established by the Fulbright-Hays Act send Americans abroad to study foreign languages and cultures. Their budget this year is $12.6-million. The other main program, known as Title VI, supports resource centers and provides one-year fellowships, mostly domestic, for scholars of foreign languages or area studies. This year's budget of $93-million supports 1,561 scholars. Taking inflation into account, the amount for both programs is 30 percent less than in 1967, when Title VI financed 2,344 fellowships.
Last month a report released by the National Academies' National Research Council said the two programs were generally doing a good job but needed more federal money to meet expanded international challenges and to maintain a reservoir of teachers and learners of a wide range of languages, not just those deemed critical at any particular time.
Meanwhile, the federal government has introduced or enlarged several smaller language programs. Government-financed National Flagship Language Programs were established on a dozen campuses starting in 2003, at a cost of $15-million annually. Their goal is to graduate 2,000 students fluent in the critical languages by the end of the decade. And the part of the federally supported Fulbright program that brings foreign scholars over to teach their languages on American campuses has been greatly expanded. This year nearly 400 teaching assistants are in the United States, including 104 from 12 Arab countries.
In January 2006, President Bush announced the $114-million National Security Language Initiative to teach more Americans critical languages. The proposal involves the Departments of Education, State, and Defense, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It includes programs to bring learners to fluency, to train language teachers, and to establish bilingual programs in Arabic and Chinese in public schools, bringing more language-trained students into the college pipeline.
Part of the $114-million was already in the federal budget, and only part of the proposed new spending was approved by Congress for this year.
Many educators view the program as a modest, though useful, step. But some are less satisfied.
"Those are very critical needs," says Madeleine F. Green, the American Council on Education's vice president for international initiatives, "and the president comes out with $114-million, part of it old money. That's not serious."
The administration has identified eight critical languages, or language families, with the most pressing deficits: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Hindi and the related languages of the Indian subcontinent, Persian and its relatives, and Turkish and its close cousins in Central Asia.
Interest in those languages has been fickle, often depending on political events. In the 1980s, enrollments in Japanese more than quadrupled to 46,000 amid concerns that Japan was outperforming the United States economically. Enrollments in Russian dropped nearly 45 percent, to 25,000, in the five years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc around 1990.
Meanwhile, as China's economic and political influence has grown, enrollments in Chinese rose 75 percent — to 34,000 — from 1990 to 2002. Experts estimate that enrollments have increased by nearly 50 percent since then. Chinese is now the "best resourced," of the critical languages, says Catherine W. Ingold, director of the National Foreign Language Center, a research institute at the University of Maryland.
Chinese departments can draw from the large number of Chinese graduate students in the United States, though officials say it is hard to find instructors trained to teach languages. At the elementary- and secondary-school level there is an acute shortage of certified teachers of Chinese.
The University of Maryland is home to the first of a dozen Confucius Institutes established recently on American campuses with support from the Chinese government. The institutes' mission is to complement university Chinese departments. The one at Maryland organizes exhibits and seminars on Chinese culture and is talking with the business school about offering "business Chinese" courses, says Chuan Sheng Liu, its director, who is a senior physics professor at the university. The institute also provides weekend courses for about 50 teachers from public and Chinese-heritage schools.
"There has been an incredible increase in demand for Chinese instructors at K through 12," says Zev J. Handel, associate chairman of the department of Asian languages and literature at the University of Washington. As the next wave of students graduates from high school, he expects to see a big growth in enrollments in college Chinese courses.
His department expects a surge in demand for Hindi classes a few years later. Indian exports like Bollywood films and the subcontinent's savory cuisine have been growing in popularity in the northwestern United States, he says. "Kids are starting to be interested in Indic culture on their own, as they have been in Chinese culture."
Arabic Is King
But the biggest growth in demand at colleges has been in Arabic, following the 2001 terrorist attacks. Enrollments nearly doubled, from 5,500 in 1998 to 10,500 in 2002, the year of the most recent survey. Arabic-language specialists say enrollments have probably doubled again since then.
September 11, 2001, "was the Sputnik event for Arabic," says Dora E. Johnson, an official of the nonprofit Center for Applied Linguistics.
The number of institutions teaching Arabic grew from 157 in 1998 to 233 in 2002; experts say there may be more than 300 institutions today. "Our field was just not prepared," says Karin C. Ryding, a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, where Arabic-language enrollments have grown from 125 in 2001 to 400 this year.
The faculty shortage has led to bidding wars for qualified Arabic teachers. The United States Naval Academy started an Arabic program in 2004 but "we were under pressure last year to expand," says Clarissa C. Burt, the program's coordinator. "One of the candidates we considered really qualified bid himself up to a very remarkable range of salary for an entry-level assistant-professor position."
The candidate ended up taking a job at another institution. Roger M.A. Allen, chairman of the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, says non-tenure-track Arabic-language teachers can command annual salaries of $50,000 or more, up to $10,000 higher than lecturers at equivalent levels in other languages.
Overseas recruitment might seem a natural remedy, but department heads say the still-lengthy visa procedures for people from Muslim countries make that alternative unattractive. Mr. Allen says the up-to-six-month wait for a visa has dissuaded his university from hiring abroad. It's "an extremely long and aggravating process," he says.
Graduates of critical-language programs find themselves in high demand. Paul J. Gimigliano, a spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency, says that even after "quite a dramatic wave of hiring," the agency still offers hiring bonuses of up to $35,000 for people with strong skills in "mission-critical languages" like Arabic and Farsi.
Leslie A. Bentz, a junior at Maryland, is in a second-semester Arabic class. She says the university's twice-yearly job fairs are regularly attended by recruiters from the CIA and other government agencies: "They won't even talk to you if you don't have language skills."
Language educators feel that colleges are partly to blame for the shortage of graduates proficient in critical languages.
"Most college administrators in this country are monolingual," says Gerald E. Lampe, a professor of Arabic and former president of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic, "which is part of the reason they have traditionally been unwilling to fund classes with fewer students in them."
That's changing, he says, as student demand for the critical languages grows. But some institutions have done little more than hire a few temporary teachers, sometimes in a seemingly haphazard way.
In the spring of 2005, for example, with student demand for Arabic soaring, the University of California at Berkeley announced a budget cut that reduced from four to two the number of entry-level Arabic sections. By the start of classes the department had managed to cobble together enough funds to return to four sections. Despite continuing growth in demand, there were four sections again this academic year, shutting out considerable numbers of students.
Six sections are planned next year. But the university's practice of announcing the budget for temporary hires only a few months before the start of the academic year means "long range planning is almost impossible," says Cathleen A. Keller, acting chairwoman of the department of Near East studies. Berkeley's administration declined to comment.
Surveys of business leaders show that they are increasingly concerned about a lack of international skills among college graduates they hire.
"The U.S. is going to become less competitive in foreign markets due to a lack of foreign-language capabilities," warns Alfred T. Mockett, chief executive of Motive Inc., a software company based in Austin, Tex. He was the co-chair of a committee that produced "Education for Global Leadership," a widely quoted report calling for more foreign-language study, published last year by the Committee for Economic Development, a group of business and academic leaders.
"We need to arm students with an international civics tool kit," containing knowledge of languages and cultures, he says.
Part of the problem is that the bulk of courses are at lower levels, giving learners a taste of a new tongue but nothing near fluency.
"The government doesn't need people who can order off of a Chinese menu," says Martha G. Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. "They need people who can conduct high-level negotiations" in Chinese, Persian, or Urdu.
A major effort to meet that need is the federally funded National Flagship Language Program. At first the programs were all for graduate students: typically a 15-month intensive program followed by an optional year of study abroad. Recently officials decided to concentrate on four-year undergraduate programs, including a year abroad, that students would follow alongside their major.
The two Arabic flagship programs send their students to the University of Damascus. Unlike Cairo, the traditional destination for students of Arabic, Damascus has few English speakers.
Lucas G. Winter is one of five students there with the first flagship group from the University of Maryland. He says Arabic is "ridiculously difficult," and adds that the new program in Damascus had some early organizational problems. Yet he says he could not have picked a better place to study the language. His instructors are "very professional," he says, and all students do a one-semester internship while there. He is working in a private publishing company.
The flagship programs are at the forefront of a move away from the traditional focus of foreign-language studies, which was literature, and toward a study of contemporary media and culture. The goal is to make students able to use the language in practical settings, like reading foreign newspapers and communicating with a wide range of people in a country.
Another approach increasingly championed by language advocates is intensive language instruction in grade school. Three of the flagship programs — two in Chinese and one in Arabic — are cooperating with local school districts that have established Chinese- and Arabic-immersion programs in elementary and secondary schools.
Such programs hold the promise of producing high-school graduates ready to enter college with language skills as high or higher than those of a typical student who has finished an undergraduate degree in a foreign language.
But those are small steps that will affect only a limited number of students. Language educators say that although the need for more foreign-language skills is growing in the national consciousness, it is still far from certain that that interest will translate into action.
Advocates hope the new, Democrat-controlled Congress will allocate more money to language education, but they say prospects are unclear. "Even if there is support in spirit," says Ms. Green, of the American Council on Education, "we have a deficit and this terrible war going on." Together they limit the money available for language programs.