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Growing Interest in Languages May Spur Federal Initiatives

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Washington--Advocates of strengthened foreign-language programs, after years of lobbying, delivering ominous warnings of international embarrassments, and developing imaginative student-recruitment techniques, think they may finally be seeing their work pay off.

The 13-year decline in foreign-language enrollments appears to have stopped, and interest is up markedly in some parts of the country, according to representatives of foreign-language associations.

Awareness Increased

In addition, they say, public awareness of the nation's "language crisis" has increased considerably.

And a bill providing increased federal funds for foreign-language study has its best chance yet for passage, according to some Capitol Hill observers and representatives of foreign-language associations.

The bill, H.R. 3231, has won the unanimous approval of a House subcommittee and may be marked up as early as this week in the full House Committee on Education and Labor.

The bill is similar to previous efforts by its sponsor, Representative Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, to bring government resources to bear on the problem of the inability of Americans, in a global age, to speak or understand other languages. Mr. Simon is the author of The Tongue-Tied American, a 1980 book on the nation's "foreign-language crisis."

Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, while a strong advocate of improved foreign-language teaching in the schools, is opposing the bill. Mr. Bell said the legislation is "inconsistent" with the Administration's move away from categorical programs in education and does not provide sufficient incentives "to have a significant impact."

Supporters Optimistic

Nonetheless, the bill's advocates are optimistic about its chances for passage during the current congressional session, though they are not sure it will be fully funded. One reason for their optimism is the legislation's emphasis on national security--an issue popular with the current Administration as well as the Congress.

Mr. Simon's bill, as amended by the subcommittee, provides:

$10 million in grants to state departments of education to reward "innovative" foreign-language teaching in elementary and secondary schools. Local school districts would submit applications to the state education department, which would in turn apply to the U.S. Department of Education. States whose plans were approved would receive grants of $50,000 plus 4 cents per capita, based on 1980 census figures.

The bill also requires that student achievement be closely monitored; that programs receiving federal funds be available to all residents of the school district between the ages of 5 and 17; and that 1 percent of the money be set aside for staff development.

$4 million to junior and community colleges, also to be administered by the appropriate state agency, for model foreign-language programs.

$13 million, or $30 for each foreign-lan-guage student, to four-year colleges and universities. The subsidy would be $40 per student for "less commonly taught" languages and for students continuing past the second year of study in any foreign language.

$60 million for colleges and universities that require two years of foreign-language study for either admission or graduation.

The Joint National Committee for Languages, representing 12 nationwide foreign-language associations, has recommended that elementary and secondary schools receive more of the money, "in order to promote interest in foreign-language study early and to demonstrate the value and utility of such study."

Nick Penner, a staff assistant to Mr. Simon's subcommittee, acknowledged the wealth of evidence supporting the value of for-eign-language training in the early grades. But, he said, there are persuasive reasons for spending most of the money to induce colleges and universities to adopt foreign-language requirements.

"Until the institutions of higher education put back the requirements," he said, "elementary and secondary schools just aren't going to move."

To some extent, the changes already are taking place. Dozens of institutions of higher education--from large state universities to small private colleges--have reinstated language requirements dropped in the 1960's.

Student Demand Great

Some 60 percent of colleges and universities now have some form of foreign-language reirement, association representatives estimate.

And officials of at least one such institution--the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Arts and Sciences--say they cannot meet the student demand this fall for foreign-language classes.

Furthermore, the influential College Board included foreign-language training in its recently released list of "recommended minimum skills" for college-bound students. That move, leaders in the foreign-language field hope, will stimulate growth and improvement at the high-school level.

A survey conducted last year by the University of Michigan's Institute for Survey Research and the Center for Applied Linguistics indicated strong public demand for foreign-language training in the elementary and secondary schools.

More than 93 percent of the respondents said foreign languages should be offered in secondary schools; 75 percent said elementary schools should offer languages; and 84 percent of the parents responding said they were encouraging their children to study a foreign language.

These high aspirations, however, have not been translated into an enrollment boom in schools--in part because overall declining enrollment, budget cuts, and teacher layoffs "have decimated us in some areas," said C. Edward Scebold, executive director of the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

In 1978, the last year for which figures are available, 17.8 percent of high-school students were enrolled in a foreign-language course, according to a survey by the council.

The group estimated that perhaps 50 percent of all American students in 1978 would be exposed to a foreign language at some point in their elementary and secondary schooling--although typically for only one or two years.

Wide Regional Variations

The numbers have remained fairly stable overall since then, officials of the council estimate, but there are wide regional variations.

For example, several Massachusetts school systems, in the wake of Proposition 2, have dropped all foreign-language courses.

At the same time, however, interest in languages seems to have picked up considerably in some regions of the country. The New York City public schools, for instance, now require foreign-language study in their college-preparatory course of study leading to an "academic" diploma, one of three types of diploma granted by the system.

The system's language enrollment is expected to double as a result. No other major school system or state has such requirements, according to representatives of several national foreign-language associations.

Enrollments in language classes also are reported to be up in several states, with secondary schools in Virginia and Oklahoma showing strong gains.

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