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U.S. Reps. Push for Foreign-Language Teaching in ESEA

Two Democrats from the U.S. House of Representatives said at a policy briefing yesterday on Capitol Hill that they plan to introduce a bill that would authorize $400 million in funding for fiscal 2011 for the teaching of foreign languages to K-12 students. They hope the bill will become part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"Today, the lack of a second language doesn't just isolate people. It makes them less competitive," said U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, from California, at the briefing, which was hosted by the Asia Society and several other organizations that have joined together to advocate for more foreign-language instruction at the K-12 level. Chu, who grew up in a bilingual household, said that people who speak more than one language end up with "more customers" and "a better future."

U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, from New York, also pledged his support for the bill and also emphasized how bilingualism can improve a young person's economic prospects. "Our future workers are going to be working in a global marketplace. They need to know English isn't the only language in the world," he said.

Organizers for the event said that U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey, is also supporting the bill, though he was unable to attend the briefing.

A description of the bill handed out at the briefing said it would provide $100 million for the U.S. Department of Education to take a leadership role in supporting the teaching of foreign languages, such as coordinating with the departments of state, defense, and commerce to promote best practices for language teaching. Some of the money would provide scholarships for students and teachers to study abroad.

Another $100 million would go to states to "expand and articulate" statewide efforts for language learning.

Lastly, the bill draft proposes that $200 million pay for grants from the Education Department to "partnerships" that would develop and expand model foreign-language programs. Right now, the Education Department has only one grant program with this purpose, called the Foreign Language Assistance Program. That program gave out $19 million in fiscal 2009, down from $23 million in 2008.

So if this bill were approved, it would mean a huge increase in funding for language learning by the federal government.

Most of the presentations at the briefing focused on how to boost programs for children who don't speak a language other than English at home. Dan E. Davidson, the president of the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies, made a case for why the United States would benefit from having students start learning Russian at the K-12 level rather than starting out with the language as college freshmen. Essentially, he said, if students come to college with some proficiency in Russian, colleges and universities can be successful in moving them to a proficiency level that they can use professionally. But if they start from scratch in college, they don't reach professional competence by the end of four years.

One presenter, Michael Nugent, the deputy director of the National Security Education Program, a federal initiative backing the learning of less commonly taught languages, mentioned a pilot program at the K-12 level that builds on the skills of students who speak Arabic at home and attend Dearborn, Mich. public schools. In that program, Dearborn public schools are benefiting from a U.S. Department of Defense grant that went to Michigan State University to work with K-12 schools to create an Arabic-language-learning pipeline. I wrote about the potential to increase Arabic teaching and learning in Dearborn schools back in 2006.

"Once you build the program," said Nugent at the policy briefing, "not only does the heritage community come out and support it, the non-heritage people get exited, too."

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