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Summer 2007 Vol. 7 No. 2

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©Stockbyte/Getty Images Speaking Up for Foreign Languages & International Education

When it comes to foreign language skills and knowledge of other cultures, most Americans are stuck in "Smallville." Yet, today, the United States faces unprecedented demands for expertise in languages and cultures, as well as globally aware citizens. A new National Research Council report calls for more support from the U.S. education system to develop an integrated approach to improving such skills and knowledge, beginning in the primary grades.

The U.S. Department of Education should take a leadership role in ensuring that its foreign language and international education programs respond to both current and future needs. The department does not have an overall view of or master plan for its range of language and international programs, including the higher education programs known collectively as Title VI and Fulbright-Hays. And that lack does not bode well for the nation's security and competitiveness, the report says.

Consolidating oversight of the programs under a high-ranking official, preferably a presidential appointment, would be an important first step. Furthermore, Congress should require the U.S. secretary of education to lead development of an interagency biennial public report outlining national needs in this area, plans to tackle them, and progress toward goals.

Universities should play key roles, partnering with federal officials to continuously improve the programs. The more Americans who can communicate in a broad range of languages, the better the nation can respond to new and unanticipated challenges across the globe, the report says.

The Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs were created nearly 50 years ago following the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. The surprise launch shocked the United States, leading to large increases in federal spending on education and scientific research to meet U.S. national security needs. Over the years, the programs' scope has grown to encompass undergraduate and graduate education in foreign languages, international studies, and area studies, which focus on particular regions of the world. They also promote greater use of technology, international business training, and the recruitment of minorities into international service professions.

The endeavor has been fruitful, the report says. For example, the programs have boosted the teaching of more than 250 less commonly taught languages, such as Mandarin, and developed instructional materials that are used in the federal government, K-12 education, and academia. However, funding and staff resources have trailed the programs' expanded mission.

Also lacking are national data on the programs' impact. The department's effort to improve its new data system should provide uniform standards for data collection and allow comparisons across programs and over time, the report says. Moreover, information on their performance should be publicly available.   -- Vanee Vines

International Education and Foreign Languages: Keys to Securing America's Future. Committee to Review the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays International Education Programs, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2007, 412 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10494-7, available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $50.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Janet L. Norwood, a counselor and senior fellow at the Conference Board Inc., and former U.S. commissioner of labor statistics. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

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Copyright 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences