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Tongue Tied, New Republic, Oct. 24, 2005

Last fall, the College Board asked 14,000 high schools in the United States

how many of them planned to offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses in Chinese in

the fall of 2006, in preparation for the first Chinese language AP exam in 2007.

The Board expected a few hundred to say yes, but jaws hit the floor when 2,347

schools said they were interested in Chinese. For those who believe that

American children should learn more languages, especially those of economic

competitors like China, this is good news. But there’s one problem: We don’t

have enough qualified teachers. The system would need an estimated 2,000 more

officially certified Chinese language teachers before all the interested schools

could offer AP Chinese. A 2004 report by the Chinese Language Association of

Secondary-Elementary Schools counted only 110 high school-level teachers.

Shortages of language workers are affecting not just education but

surveillance and military operations, the court system, and hospitals. In 2004,

the FBI’s backlog of untranslated surveillance doubled because it did not have

enough foreign language analysts. A 2000 survey of uninsured patients in 16

cities found that more than half of those who needed an interpreter said the

hospital couldn’t provide one in a timely fashion. Over a recent six-month

period, the lone interpreter in the Flagstaff, Arizona, municipal court had

about 45 percent more requests than he could fill.

In response to these shortages, Hawaii Senator Daniel Akaka introduced the

National Foreign Language Coordination Act last May. The bill calls for the

creation of a national foreign language council made up of representatives of 14

federal agencies. The council would be headed by a “national foreign language

director.” This czar, the bill says, will develop and implement a “national

foreign language strategy” that would increase the number of diplomats,

intelligence analysts, teachers, medical and social services professionals,

court interpreters, and law enforcement officers who can use foreign languages.

Such recognition is clearly overdue, and many language professionals are

understandably excited about Akaka’s legislation. “[Such attention] is an

absolute necessity for our survival as a nation,” says Alexander Rainof, a

professor of translation and interpretation at California State University-Long

Beach and the chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and

Translators. But, unless we want our national security and economic

competitiveness to continue to be compromised, there needs to be a vast

conceptual shift in how Americans think about learning and utilizing languages.

The real solution will come in treating language more like a commodity, such as

gasoline, that involves a web of producers, a complex supply chain, and

regulatory oversight. But the language czar, as construed by Akaka’s bill, is

unlikely to have the power to make this happen.

How did the United States, a place where more than 150 immigrant languages

are spoken (according to the world-language compendium Ethnologue), get into a

situation in which it doesn’t have enough language workers? Aside from a legacy

of misunderstanding bilingualism and encouraging immigrants to speak only

English, it stems from too few native English speakers in the United States

studying foreign languages–and that those who do view it as a cultural pursuit,

rather than as an economic skill. Foreign language departments and universities

mainly teach their students to read foreign literature, but most language work

doesn’t involve reading Proust in the original. Rather, it calls for technical

expertise in subject areas like engineering, medicine, or law.

Just as the United States has never had an official language, it has never

had a person who oversees a national language policy and balances the needs of

the military, intelligence agencies, education, academia, and industry. The idea

for Akaka’s language czar comes from a June 2004 meeting, sponsored by the

Department of Defense and the University of Maryland, where–for the first

time– representatives from government, business, and education discussed what a

national language policy might look like. The white paper that emerged, “A Call

to Action for National Foreign Language Capabilities,” recommends that a

“nationally recognized individual with credentials and abilities across all of

the sectors” be appointed to develop a national language strategy, establish

relationships among “[f]ederal, state, and local government agencies, academia,

industry, labor, and heritage communities,” and lead a public campaign to raise

awareness about careers that require foreign language skills and cultural


But, as currently envisioned, the language czar has no real power to enact

change. Akaka’s bill gives the czar a budget for p.r. but no oversight over

anyone else’s budget, so the czar wouldn’t set goals and steer a national

language strategy to meet them as much as hope for the cooperation of the

agencies represented on the council. Akaka’s bill doesn’t specify to whom the

czar would report, either, which leaves no one responsible when the goals aren’t

met. “Having a symbolic person, if you can’t get anything else, would be fine,”

says Richard Brecht, the director of the University of Maryland Center for the

Advanced Study of Language. “But having someone who has reporting

responsibilities, who’s supposed to report to the National Security Council and

Congress on the progress made in education, industry, and the military–that

gives it more teeth.”

To make a dent in the shortages, a properly construed czar could act

tactically and strategically. In the short term, such a czar could solve the

Chinese teacher shortage by arranging certification waivers for skilled teachers

at Chinese community schools. To get intelligence-related language work done, he

or she should encourage the intelligence agencies to adopt the National Security

Agency’s “multilevel security clearance system,” which allows low-risk work to

be done by analysts who are waiting for full security clearances. And he or she

should make sure that other federal agencies, as well as court systems and

hospital systems, develop on-the-job certification training programs.

The czar could also help match language workers with available jobs.

Currently, few speakers of minority languages have an incentive to invest time

and money in training and certification, because translating jobs in most parts

of the country are too few. Bill Hewitt, at the National Center for State

Courts, has proposed regionally based interpreter resource centers that would

keep databases of available workers, who could be hired by federal, state, and

local agencies. As with so many potential solutions to the language-expertise

shortage, this system could exist now, but it doesn’t, and the missing piece isn

‘t a person in Washington, D.C., exhorting Americans to learn languages.

The czar should have the power to set ambitious goals with long-term payoffs.

He should ask Congress for $25 million per year until 2020 to establish 100

dual-language K-12 immersion programs in the United States in five strategic

languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Russian, and Korean. Those students would

eventually feed into the universities, where the czar would have explained to

presidents and deans that, by offering degrees in language work (in addition to

literature and conversation), they would provide jobs to graduates. Right now,

the only full-fledged bachelor’s degree in both interpretation and translation

is offered by California State University-Long Beach, where students take

Spanish courses that prepare them to work in medicine, law, and business.

Despite the need for PhDs in technology design and interpretation theory, only

five comprehensive master’s-level programs exist in the United States. The czar

should ask for $17 million to fund a language industry association through the

Department of Commerce to link language work and regional economic development.

The model here is Canada, where, in 2003, the government pledged $17 million USD

to develop language technology and help Canadian language-services firms build

their businesses.

Given our laissez-faire attitude about language, a centralized approach is

necessary. But getting people to think of languages as one of America’s great

social resources and potential economic assets will require a czar who’s more

than just a preacher but who can put in place a national language strategy to

take us through the next 50 years.