The Answer Is On the Tip of Our Many Tongues

By Geoffrey Nunberg

Sunday, December 9, 2001; Page B02

PALO ALTO, Calif.--FBI director Robert Mueller exposed one of the most glaring deficiencies in our intelligence capabilities when he made a public appeal for translators of Arabic, Farsi and Pashto, which some people took as the occasion to criticize foreign-language programs in American schools and universities. If the war on terrorism awakens some students and school administrators to the importance of language study, so much the better. But it would be a mistake to lay responsibility for our lack of strategic language resources chiefly with schools or universities -- or to believe they are in a position to rectify the problem.

We need instead to take advantage of the resources that the promise of America has brought to our shores -- children who are growing up speaking those languages in cities across the country, from Alexandria and Brooklyn to San Francisco. The Census Bureau estimates that 40,000 Afghans are living in America, the majority of them ethnic Pashtuns, and others put the figures several times higher.

Our lack of linguistic expertise is not a new problem -- nor one that will go away soon. The FBI has acknowledged that it could have had warnings of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing from intercepted tapes and notebooks in Arabic if it had had the resources to translate them; similarly, the United States could have known ahead of time about the 1998 nuclear tests in India and Pakistan if it had been able to translate information in its possession.

Foreign-language study in the United States is not suffering from nearly such a dramatic decline as some have suggested. True, the proportion of college students studying languages has dropped over recent decades, but that's largely because most of the growth in college enrollment has been in new programs that tend to give the traditional liberal arts curriculum less emphasis than older schools do. At elite universities, in fact, enrollment in language courses is up. At Stanford, it has increased 20 percent in the past decade.

What's more, a 1997 study by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington showed that the number of both public and private high schools offering foreign languages had held steady since 1987, and that the number of elementary schools offering languages had increased from 22 to 31 percent. Even more impressively, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of elementary schools offering intensive or immersion programs aimed at developing true fluency in foreign languages. That is a sign that Americans are finally starting to learn what Europeans have known for a long time -- that language mastery has to come early in life. But whether in Europe or America, the fact remains that most children learn languages that are generally useful for trade and culture, such as Spanish or German -- not for foreign policy, such as Dari and Pashto.

Universities haven't wholly neglected such strategic languages. American colleges and universities graduated only nine Arabic majors last year, but that statistic does not tell the whole story. A 1998 Modern Language Association survey showed that there were 5,060 undergraduates taking courses in Arabic at American universities; most of them were majoring in other fields, such as history or international relations. What's more, the number of students studying Arabic began to rise after the Persian Gulf War, andhas jumped sharply since Sept. 11.

But while universities must play the central role in developing the foreign-area specialists that national security requires, it is unrealistic to expect them to shoulder most of the burden of developing the linguistic resources that America needs, whether for national security or for the more pedestrian purposes of trade and international politics. Programs in languages such as Arabic are expensive and difficult to establish. Only a small number of universities are in a position to offer courses in such languages as Hausa (spoken by 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa), Turkish or Malay. And the National Foreign Language Center reports that no American university offers courses in Tajik, Turkmen or Baluchi, which are widely spoken in Southwest Asia. (A couple of universities have introduced courses in Pashto since Sept. 11.) Most strategic languages can be learned only at specialized institutions such as the Defense Language Training Institute in Monterey, Calif., or through programs designed by organizations such as the Center for Applied Linguistics.

What's more, even though a couple of semesters of Spanish can make for a more enjoyable holiday in Puerto Vallarta, someone armed with the same amount of training in Arabic wouldn't be of much use in screening intercepted phone calls between suspected terrorists.

What was really sad about the FBI's appeal for Arabic and Pashto translators is that, of all countries, the United States is not short of speakers of those languages, both in the form of recent immigrants and, more importantly, their bilingual children, who satisfy the citizenship and residency requirements that national security demands of its language experts.

In fact, given the broad linguistic backgrounds of American immigrants (the Department of Education estimates that more than 100 languages are spoken by students in the Fairfax County public schools alone), we ought to be in a unique position to deal with any linguistic challenges that world events might throw our way. Albanian, Tagalog, Somali, Uzbek, Tamil -- whatever the language of the next hot spot, we will have thousands of speakers of it in our own backyard.

That linguistic competence wouldn't be lost to us if we instituted a national heritage language program aimed at helping the children of immigrants maintain and develop their fluency and literacy in their native tongues. Such a program could make use of resources ranging from Internet discussion groups to summer programs. It would help students develop knowledge of technical and business language, not simply the domestic vocabulary they use at home. And in communities of immigrants, the best model would be two-way immersion programs in elementary schools, like those already established for languages such as Mandarin, Japanese and Russian.

The principle here is no different from what the Bush administration has been arguing in its energy policy: It's a lot easier to cultivate existing resources than to develop new ones. But that approach would require a reversal in American attitudes toward bilingualism -- a change from the concerted effort of recent years to eliminate bilingual education programs, even those aimed at easing the transition to English. In Dearborn, Mich., which has some schools in which 90 percent of students speak Arabic, school superintendent Jeremy Hughes proposed an Arabic-Englishprogram in 1995. But the local school board shelved the plan after intense criticism from critics of bilingual education; and it was only three years ago that a 30-student pilot program could be established using federal funds.

The English-only movement has encouraged the belief that assimilation necessarily involves giving up a foreign tongue. It leaves us in an odd position: We encourage the children of immigrants to become monolingual, then lament when there's no one available to translate the very languages these students grew up speaking.

Over the past century, America's attitude toward foreign-language learning has changed several times. At the turn of the 20th century, more than 6 percent of American schoolchildren were receiving most or all of their primary education in the German language alone. Those programs were eliminated around the time of World War I -- the casualties of an overreaction to the dangers posed by foreign-born radicals and subversives.

Out of that fear grew the doctrine that a loyal American couldn't serve two linguistic masters. In upholding a 1919 Nebraska law that barred elementary school instruction in foreign languages, the Nebraska Supreme Court warned against the "baneful effects" of educating children in foreign languages, which must "naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of their country." In recent years many of the bilingual programs established in the '70s and '80s have been scaled down or terminated as a result of the English-only movement (whose partisans have been sharply critical of the Arabic bilingual programs in the Dearborn public schools).

Nations such as Belgium, Switzerland, Finland and even Australia have made the maintenance of native languages an educational priority without hampering students' mastery of their official national languages. And American ethnic and religious minorities have long supported private programs aimed at making children fluent in languages such as Chinese and Hebrew without inhibiting their assimilation to English, or for that matter, their unqualified patriotism.

Whatever progress we make in encouraging native English speakers to learn foreign languages, America will never reach the levels of multilingual proficiency that are routine in regions like Northern Europe -- or provide in schools the opportunity to learn languages that the security agencies now require. To many Americans, the worldwide dominance of English makes foreign-language skills seem a luxury rather than a necessity here. But that's all the more reason to help the children of immigrants maintain their parents' languages. If Sept. 11 has taught us anything, it's that those skills are too important to be sacrificed in the name of cultural uniformity.

Geoffrey Nunberg is a scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and a consulting professor of linguistics at Stanford University. His most recent book is "The Way We Talk Now" (Houghton Mifflin).

© 2001 The Washington Post Company