Every day, it seems, the distance between the United States and the rest of world shrinks. For decades, the United States had a cushion from most of the world, wedged between the vast Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Now, those vast oceans look like ponds in the scope of ever increasing globalization. The world has become smaller, in a way, and our interactions with people from other countries and cultures have become more frequent as a result.
Unfortunately, just as the need for oft-considered "obscure" languages grows, support for learning those languages is shrinking.
It's frustrating, for instance, to hear that Kalona Elementary is closing its Arabic language curriculum because of funding shortages. And an ever-shrinking foreign-language budget is not specific to Kalona.
Even at the UI, foreign-language departments are asked to shrink rather than expand. The once independent Russian and Asian foreign language departments have consolidated into the Asian and Slavic Languages and Literature Department. And Arabic at the UI is part of the French and Italian department.
The Kalona program was a stellar example of how and when to teach a foreign language. Not only did Kalona offer an Arabic program (a rarity in its own right), it also employed a native speaker to teach elementary-school children. A native speaker will understand the nuances of their language better than a non-native speaker, even if that non-native studied the language for a great length of time. Younger children can learn a foreign language with much more ease than older people because their minds are still trying to grasp their native tongue.
Asila Al Mawali, a UI Arabic teaching assistant from Oman on a Fulbright grant, says teaching children the basics of a foreign language early on makes it easier to teach them the language's greater complexities later in life.
The importance of learning foreign languages only increases as technology and our foreign interests bring the world closer together. Learning a foreign language — especially one that is outside the tradition of Spanish, French, or German — can provide numerous benefits and could become necessary in the near future. Arabic, for example, is spoken as the primary language in approximately 23 countries, many of which bear strategic significance for not only the United States but the Western world in general.
Understanding Arabic is also crucial to understanding the culture of countries that may not speak Arabic as the official language but still base their legal code on the Koran, and Arabic is its official language. Being able to read the Koran in its original Arabic will allow the reader a new and better understanding of those cultures.
Arabic is not the only language that bears cultural and strategic significance. Irina Kostina, a UI Russian professor from the Moscow area, said the U.S. government listed Russian as a strategic language. Russian, she also said, is the language of education throughout Eastern Europe and central and northern Asia — much in the same way Latin was the language of education for Western Europe throughout history. At a recent CIA question-and-answer meeting at the Pomerantz Center, recruiters said the CIA offered bonuses of up to $35,000 to individuals with proficiency in languages such as Russian and Arabic.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons to keep foreign languages in schools is the students themselves.
There has been an increase in demand for nontraditional languages, said Ashot Vardanyan, a UI Russian instructor from Armenia. He said Cedar Rapids Washington High is creating a Russian curriculum because there's been an increased interest in the language.
Kostina put it best when she said the problems America faces are global ones. To find solutions for these problems, we'll all need to speak each other's languages.