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CIA Director Urges Stronger Focus on Foreign Languages

At a national summit yesterday, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta called for a strong national commitment to ensuring that Americans master foreign languages, saying the issue is vital to U.S. security and competitiveness.

"A significant cultural change needs to occur," he said, according to a CIA press release. "And that requires a transformation in attitude from everyone involved: individuals, government, schools and universities, and the private sector."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also spoke at the event, which was jointly hosted by the CIA and the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language. In his remarks, Duncan defended a plan to consolidate an existing federal foreign-language program into a broader, competitive fund.

Panetta said that foreign-language skills offer an important window into other peoples and cultures.

"Mastery of a second language allows you to capture the nuances that are essential to true understanding," he said. "This is not about learning something that is helpful or simply nice to have. It is crucial to the CIA's mission."

In May 2009, Panetta launched a five-year language initiative that aims to double the number of CIA analysts who are proficient in foreign languages and increase by half the number of officers serving in other countries who have the needed proficiency skills.

In a recent story I wrote about growing efforts by the Chinese government to promote—and help pay for—Mandarin language instruction in the United States, I noted that the University of Maryland's language center administers the federal STARTALK program. That initiative, launched by President George W. Bush in 2006, provided about $20 million this year for K-16 summer programs for teachers and students in "critical need" languages viewed as vital to U.S. national security, such as Chinese, Arabic, and Russian. More than half that money went for Chinese-language programs.

Secretary Duncan also highlighted in his remarks the importance of promoting foreign-language instruction in U.S. schools, saying it is "spotty and unfortunately on the decline."

He noted, for example, that the proportion of elementary schools teaching foreign languages has dropped to about one-quarter, and that only 10 states require high school graduates to study a foreign language.

"The United States is a long way from being the multilingual society that so many of our economic competitors are," he said. "My message to you today is that K-12 schools and higher education institutions must be part of the solution to our national language gap."

But whether Duncan himself is part of the solution appears to be questionable to some advocates for a strong federal commitment to the issue. That's because as part of the Obama administration's budget request for fiscal 2011 and its proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, federal aid for the $27 million Foreign Language Assistance program at the Education Department would be merged into a larger, flexible spending pot focused on promoting a "well-rounded" education.

Last May, a coalition of 17 organizations, including the American Councils for International Education and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, wrote a letter to Senate budget leaders opposing the plan.

"We believe this approach to be a step backwards in federal support for a critical national need, at a time of severe and growing shortages of Americans with foreign-language skills in government, health care, law enforcement, business, and many other professions," they wrote.

Duncan acknowledged concerns about that proposal in his remarks.

"I recognize that the plan to include funding for foreign-language education [in a new] competitive program with other subjects may make some of you in this room nervous, even if it means you can potentially compete for significantly more funding than in the past," he said.

Of course, the concern is with that qualifier: "potentially." Since a number of existing federal programs—from Arts in Education to Teaching American History—would essentially be competing for the same pot of money, there's also the potential that foreign-language aid could decline as a result.

"I urge language educators to participate in this process and demonstrate the impact of their programs on student outcomes," Duncan said. "Multiple, small pots of funding perpetuate the status quo, but they don't lead to the transformative change we need."

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