Foreign Language Proficiency for Everyone

Recently, I was honored to have been invited to share a written statement at the Senate hearing: “A National Security Crisis: Foreign Language Capabilities in the Federal Government.” I spoke about the importance of foreign language instruction in higher education institutions.

I was asked to speak before the Senate based on my participation in the Council of Foreign Language Relations (CFR) Task Force on U.S. Education Reform and National Security, co-chaired by Secretary Condoleeza Rice and Chancellor Joel Klein. Our issued report calls for a national security readiness audit that would better coordinate government, the private sector, and academia by focusing on the critical and growing shortcomings in how we prepare the next generation for life and leadership in a globalized world.

We often forget how few of our fellow citizens get a chance to study abroad and immerse themselves in different environments. Seventy percent of Americans today do not have passports, which is about the same proportion of our citizens who cannot identify Iran, Iraq, or Israel on a map, and who think that South Sudan is a new country in South America.

Today, foreign language studies in our educational systems are at the lowest level in our nation’s history. In all levels of education, it is increasingly missing or threatened by the budget knife. Additionally, most college-age Americans who do study abroad go for only short periods and predominantly to the English-speaking world.

What we need is for America’s colleges and universities to re-institute foreign language proficiency as a graduation requirement. This was the case 100 years ago for all our higher education institutions; today, it is true for only a handful. Without the Federal programs highlighted at the Senate hearing, the numbers and this situation would be considerably worse. Fulbright, Boren, and Gilman programs are very strategic investments in that they bring into our colleges foreign language teaching assistants, dedicated scholars, and students.

In concluding my written statement, I referred to an observation by the famous cultural historian Jacques Barzun: By the 20th century, we had overturned more than a thousand years of educational experience by producing graduates who could mainly speak only one language.

I’ll end on a personal note. My daughter heads a pediatric clinic at a Federally Qualified Community Health Center. The clinic had nearly 700,000 patient visits last year, and 95 percent of her patients speak mainly Spanish. She realized in medical school that to be an effective physician in our National Service Corps, she had to learn more than chemistry and physics. And had she not done so, she would not be able to serve so many of the residents of this District.

Learning a foreign language is not only about enhancing our diplomacy and security abroad, but sometimes it is very directly about making the world a less dangerous place for our citizens right here at home.

Watch a video of the hearing and download Allan Goodman and other speakers’ testimony from the hearing website