January 6, 2006

Finally agreeing with Bush on something

From today's NY Times:

Bush Proposes Broader Language Training

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 - The Bush administration on Thursday proposed spending $114 million on educational programs to expand the teaching of Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and other languages typically not taught in public schools.

Speaking to more than 100 college and university presidents attending a two-day conference at the State Department, President Bush said the effort would play a critical role in national security and lead to American students' gaining a better understanding of foreign cultures.

"In order to convince people we care about them, we've got to understand their culture and show them we care about their culture," Mr. Bush said. "You know, when somebody comes to me and speaks Texan, I know they appreciate the Texas culture. When somebody takes time to figure out how to speak Arabic, it means they're interested in somebody else's culture." [...]

"We need intelligence officers who, when somebody says something in Arabic or Farsi or Urdu, know what they're talking about," he said.

Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, said he was among presidents in Washington last year discussing similar issues with the Central Intelligence Agency. He said he left that meeting with the understanding that "their needs are desperate."

Mr. Birgeneau said that he appreciated the administration's efforts but that, for university presidents, language training for the government is "not our central focus." [...]

The administration's language proposal, known as the National Security Language Initiative, would create several new programs and build on others, including a Pentagon effort begun three years ago to increase the number of military personnel fluent in languages and familiar with customs in developing nations.

Barry Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said a few of the programs might include a commitment to work for the government or the military. "But it's not like a draft," [...]

He said that only 44 percent of American high school students were studying any foreign language and that 70 percent of those were learning Spanish. Ms. Powell said that by comparison, the nation had only 2,000 Chinese language grade-school teachers.

Margaret Spellings, the education secretary, said in an interview that efforts to teach such languages as Chinese and Arabic to children as young as 5 were brand new. "We don't know how to do it. This whole notion is in its infancy. But our hope is this is a start, and we can build on it."

Alas, as with all other Bush initiatives, I see this one boldly going nowhere. "Somebody comes up to me and speaks Texan..." - isn't it great that America has a bilingual president? While I think there are loftier goals in second language education than fixing the CIA and the Pentagon's hiring problems, I can't really disagree with the main thrust of it. More Americans in the upper echelons of military and political planning who actually have a clue about the rest of the world can only be a good thing.

But, as the Iraq war shows all too well, the advice of existing experts is already ignored, and having more experts won't make that problem go away. I think it's a fine thing that at least some Americans have discovered that cultural autism comes at a steep price, but I don't think anyone in the Bush administration really intends to address that issue. They've simply discovered that they're short on translators.

Furthermore, when this Barry Lowenkron character says "But it's not like a draft..." you know that it means that it is like a draft. Whet I expect to see is the government offering something like the ROTC program: Get a Bachelor's in area studies on the government and you can join the army as an officer. This will probably fail because now, as in the Vietnam era, people are reluctant to join the army if they think they are likely to actually have to fight.

But the worst bit comes from the education secretary, Margaret Spellings, a woman who has, from what I can tell, never taught a class in her life. "We don't know how to do it. This whole notion is in its infancy." - no, it's been going on for thousands of years and virtually every other country in the world has already confronted the issue of raising second language knowledge in its population. Geez, the one thing that George W. Bush got right in his entire career as governor of Texas was establishing bilingual schools with a mixture of Mexican and Anglo kids, so you'd think the idea might be within the memory of one of his favourite hacks and flak-catchers. Set up bilingual magnet schools in areas with developing world immigrant populations, pay parents to send their kids to them if you have to. Hire teachers from overseas to offer classes in both languages.

The things that have to be done to make this work are substantial. Provide funds for second language education in public schools, yes, but also provide outside reinforcement. Make second language studies a requirement for university admissions (as it was two generations ago). Provide subtitled foreign media - something that has clearly made an enormous difference in Belgium - by making it a license requirement for broadcasters.

But none of this is going to happen.

Posted 2006/01/06 9:54 (Fri) | TrackBack

"Provide subtitled foreign media"

Speaking from experience, this makes an enormous difference even from a very young age. Passive language acquisition at its very best, laying the groundwork for active learning later on.

Even as a subtitler, I miss having subtitles in France and hearing the native speakers.

But if you are not used to subtitling, there is psychological (and visual) barrier. Using subtitles means you'll have to create a culture for them. Not easy.

Posted by: Guy at January 9, 2006 3:17

In Spain there are no subtitles, except in special cinemas, quite far apart, only in the ain cities, and hard to find.
Of course, the Spanish population has one of the worst English levels in Europe! I live here and have to make an effort every day to stay current with my English...
Enjoyed your blog. Good work. You may like mine:

Posted by: Javier at January 17, 2006 1:48

Guy - one of the translators at my former place of employment in Belgium brought her high school English books to work one day and let me take a look at them. I looked them over and they're awful - not much better than Dick and Jane. There is no way that school curricula accounts for the relative English fluency of Flemings. I came to the conclusion that subtitling on TV was the most likely cause, and asking around, found that most of the language teachers here agree. Apparently, kids get to middle school half knowing English already because of television.

I hate dubbing myself - I'll always take the subtitles, no matter how little I know the language.

Javier, there are other barriers to learning English in Spain and France. Considering how poor English knowledge is in Quebec, an environment full of English, when compared to Belgium, an environment where English is never spoken on the streets and has no official support, I am convinced that the linguistic features of romance languages pose a real barrier to learning English. My hypothesis is that phonological stress is a big factor. Stress is basically absent in French and used sparingly in other romance languages, but so essential to comprehension in English that native speakers may more easily understand relatively non-fluent speech from Germans and Slavs more easily than relatively fluent speech from Romance language speakers. I haven't tried to test this hypothesis, so it's a working theory as yet.

Posted by: Scott Martens at January 17, 2006 9:20

Abu Aardvark, who is a professor of political science specialising in the Arab world, has this to say about the initiative:

Bottom line? I think that American students learning languages such as Chinese and Arabic is an unqualified good. Once they have those skills, students will take them wherever their conscience and available paychecks lead - to the military, to the State Department (maybe even to staff those all important public diplomacy television response teams I'm always calling for), to academia, to think tanks, to business, wherever. I would want to see clear guidelines and institutional safeguards to prevent the Pentagon from exercising direct control over the programs, and I would not want students to be forced into signing a de facto ROTC agreement in order to get the language training. But as long as such safeguards could be negotiated, I'm in favor of a Strategic Languages Program.

Posted by: Gag Halfrunt at January 20, 2006 2:06
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