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Foreign Language Proficiency: Key to U.S. Readiness for Global Engagement and Security

My interest in East Asian languages began half a century ago when I noticed that fireworks used for Independence Day celebrations were made from Chinese newspapers.  As a boy, I collected these little scraps of print for years - captivated by the mysterious characters that have been in continual use as a written language for over 3000 years.

Not surprisingly, I never learned what was written on those little fragments of type.  Raised in a rural community by a generation of parents that had witnessed conflicts in East Asia during WWII and the Korean War, my interest in Chinese was patiently tolerated - but hardly  encouraged.  It was a time when those concerned about national security were far more obsessed with the Soviet Union than any mystery going on behind the "bamboo curtain."  China, Japan, and Korea might continue to be an occasional military nuisance, but few imagined these impoverished and defeated countries would ever threaten America's economic hegemony.  Chinese language study was largely the domain of missionaries and a few Ivy League academics.

Attitudes, of course, have now changed.  The demise of the Soviet Union was so rapid and unexpected that there was little time to develop  intelligence estimates of new potential security threats.  Western nations had been so heavily invested in monitoring the Soviet threat that it was difficult to develop new intelligence policies and shift resources to other potential threats.  The new Russian Federation, mired down by its inheritance of an obsolete Soviet bureaucracy, did not benefit as quickly from economic reforms as had been anticipated.  Despite significant natural resources and a well-developed infrastructure, Russians live little better now than they did during the Soviet era.

Although rarely found in the K-12 curriculum of U.S. public schools, there has been a gradual increase in the number of colleges and universities offering East Asian language programs.  U.S. policymakers, however, have been slow to offer meaningful support or initiatives to encourage this trend.  Currently, the war in Iraq and domestic economic issues have created new priorities that must be addressed for political expedience.  Until a comprehensive global security strategy can be established by the allied stakeholders, it is unlikely that much will change.   

Sadly, there is little discussion about the shortage of qualified linguists in the United States by policymakers except to occasionally acknowledge  deficiencies.  Respected authors such as Col. John L. Conway (USAF Ret.) have made, however, persuasive and succinct observations regarding this lack of U.S. readiness to meet global challenges.  In his article "The View from the Tower of Babel" contributed to the 2005 Summer edition of the Air and Space Power Journal, Col. Conway writes:

"America’s shortage of linguists has remained an issue since World War II, and many pundits compare the failure to translate key documents prior to 11 September 2001 to a similar situation on the eve of 7 December 1941.   Debate over the accuracy or even the fairness of such a comparison lies far beyond the scope of this article.  Suffice it to say that language skills, or the lack thereof, played a part in both tragedies." 

 "The View from the Tower of Babel:  Air Force Foreign Language Posture for Global Engagement"  Air and Space Power Journal - Summer 2005

This is not to say that there have not been ideas or initiatives proposed to solve this readiness problem.  Solutions, however, consist in more than  making up lists of "critical languages."  For decades after WWII, the U.S. Department of Defense led the nation in getting practical results to meet its language competency needs.  Contrary to popular belief, the Armed Services relied little on notions of "military regimentation" to train personnel sent to the Defense Language Institute; instead, it respected the tasks assigned to students by allowing generous amounts of time for study, pay incentives for doing well and graduating, recruitment bonuses for participating in advanced training on subsequent enlistments, exposure to native speakers, and, most importantly, a curriculum based largely on real-life dialogues that attempted to be interesting, practical, and even entertaining.  

One problem in finding good resources for intermediate-level students of Chinese was the education publishing market itself; the dynamics of this industry mirror most economic models: if there is little demand, there is little commercial incentive to design and produce competitive products.  A common mistake made by textbook purchasers, was the use of attractively priced books published in the PRC which were as much designed to  serve as vehicles for propaganda as to teach Chinese.  After the novelty of actually using books printed under the auspices of the  dedicated cadre of the Communist Party of China expired, significant shortcomings were discovered and they quickly fell into disuse.

Moreover, few incentives are offered to young people to encourage them to study difficult languages.  Although various Executive Administrations can claim that money has been contributed by the Department of Education for such endeavors, high-school students and their instructors  are rarely in a position to write the requisite grant proposals and little trickles down as a recognizable benefit to college freshmen making decisions.  High-school administrators and board members also have their own priorities when approving curricula - and keeping parents happy with expensive athletic and art/music programs are a fact of life that they cannot easily disregard.

Colleges and universities fare little better in their bid to encourage foreign language study.  Other than mandating minimal requirements for graduation, few scholarships are targeted to aspirants for degrees in a critical East Asian or Middle Eastern language.  Considering that few university presidents, chancellors or custodial regents have ever mastered an East Asian or Middle Eastern language, it is not surprising that they would view four semesters of Chinese or Arabic much the same as four semesters of Spanish or German.  Were programs such as tuition credits for critical foreign language study beyond the sophomore year piloted, the results might be surprising.