The state of foreign language education in the United States remains abysmal, and is endangering the federal government’s ability to operate in a multinational world, a panel of senior government officials testified today.
Only 30 percent of American high school students and 8 percent of post-high school students are enrolled in a foreign language today, Eduardo Ochoa, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for postsecondary eduction, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce.
And foreign language education is getting worse, Ochoa said. In the 1960s, 17 percent of post-high school students were enrolled in a foreign language.
When you look at less-commonly taught languages — such as Dari and Pashto, which are the two major languages spoken in Afghanistan — the numbers grow even more dim. Only 1 percent of post-high school students are learning such rare languages.
Glen Nordin, who is the principal foreign language advisor for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, is especially frustrated that many government leaders are seemingly unaware of the gaps in their agencies’ foreign language capabilities — and how those holes are affecting their missions.
“The biggest difficulty we face … is that our leadership is as unaware of the needs for languages within their organizations as the general populace is failing to be aware of the needs for languages in their community,” Nordin said. “It is a national disgrace in that respect, and it’s that lack of knowledge that we need to correct. We need to find a way to communicate to our people just how important that interpreter/translator at the social services office is to a community’s well-being.”
And Tracey North, the deputy assistant director of the FBI’s intelligence directorate, pointed out that we don’t know what will be the government’s most pressing foreign language need 20 years down the line, which makes the shallow state of foreign language education even more frightening.
Her comments were a good reminder of how quickly the world — and the government’s critical skill needs — can change. After all, in 1981, the Cold War was still on and the CIA’s experts were still largely focused on translating Russian. Few would have predicted that two decades later, that focus would suddenly switch to Dari and Pashto.