Throughout his two-decade career in Congress, the late Paul Simon carried on a lonely crusade to promote the study of foreign languages. The Illinois senator never missed an opportunity to call attention to this nation's linguistic isolation and the many intellectual and strategic disadvantages that isolation entails. His efforts never seemed to gain much traction.
Now it appears that 9/11 may have sparked the interest in language study that Simon tried so hard to bring about during his tenure on Capitol Hill. Figures released this month by the Modern Language Association of America show that total enrollment in college language courses has increased by almost 13 percent over the past four years.
Significantly, enrollment in Arabic classes more than doubled between 2002 and 2006. Spanish still is the most studied language on college campuses, but Arabic is the fastest growing major language studied. It broke the top 10 for the first time in 2006, according to the Modern Language Association.
Georgetown University Arabic professor Karin Ryding told Associated Press education writer Justin Pope that, while enrollments in languages such as Russian and Arabic have traditionally increased with world events, she thinks the increases we're witnessing now will be lasting. "Young people today understand that world is truly and inevitably smaller, and they're coming to the study of Arabic with serious, professional goals in mind," Ryding told Pope.
Some of this new interest in language study likely can be credited to an initiative launched almost two years ago by President Bush. The $114-million effort aims to expand existing language study at high schools and universities and establish new programs beginning as early as kindergarten. All language study is encouraged, but the initiative's emphasis is on languages considered important to national security, such as Arabic, Farsi, Chinese and Russian.
The president, like Simon before him, correctly links the study of foreign languages with our national security. That link, of course, became most apparent following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A shortage of citizens with foreign-language skills severely limited our ability respond in ways that would protect against future attacks and engage other nations in that effort. U.S. analysts found themselves sitting on a growing pile of intelligence that they could not access because there simply were not enough skilled linguists to wade through the material. There were too few American troops skilled in the languages of the regions where they were being deployed.
The world is indeed shrinking. The 2001 attacks brought that fact home, both literally and figuratively. Increasing our global knowledge through language is the smart response.