Panel Urges More Foreign-Language Instruction

By Becky Todd York — March 07, 1984 5 min read
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Baltimore--A national panel appointed to advise the Secretary of Education on the teaching of foreign languages in the United States has found a nationwide “indifference ... that should be a source of national embarrassment,” but has rejected previous recommendations that the federal government play a substantial role in foreign-language education.

The 21-member National Advisory Board on International Education Programs wrote the report at the request of Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, who urged the group to complete the work quickly to take advantage of the current interest in education reform and to allow the Congress and state legislatures to consider its recommendations promptly. Intended to advance the debate on issues raised in “A Nation at Risk,” the report was accepted by Secretary Bell late last month.

Members of the board, which was established by federal law, include representatives of education, business, government, and the public.

In marked contrast to a foreign-language study issued during the Carter Administration, the new report places much of the responsibility for improving the caliber of foreign-language training on local schools and colleges.

“We had a report that called for a large federal role, and we’re still in the same boat that we were then,” said James B. Holder-man, president of the University of South Carolina and chairman of the national board. “Just calling for a wide federal role won’t solve the problem. You’ve got to get locals and states involved.”

Nevertheless, the new study has cited many of the problems identified in earlier reports. It states, for example, that “it is shocking to note that competency in a foreign language is no longer required in our Foreign Service examination.”

Foreign-language enrollments in high schools have steadily declined from their “modest peak in 1915 of 36 percent to a mere 15 percent in 1980,” the report states, and even fewer students go on to complete sufficient courses to acquire “a minimal level of proficiency.” One finding cited by the report was that less than 2 percent of all students studied the same language for more than two years.

The import of these findings, the report said, was compounded by the board’s realization that citizens lacked even a basic understanding of foreign affairs and foreign cultures. Citizens’ knowledge in these areas, the report said, is “woefully inadequate.”

The panel did, however, find “signs that the situation is gradually improving.”

Much of the credit for improvement, the report states, goes to the “fresh stimulus” provided in 1979 by the report of the President’s Commission on Foreign Languages and International Studies. Since the 1979 report, some 70 colleges and universities have reinstated foreign-language requirements for entry or graduation.

Moreover, the panel found, some states are instituting language requirements for schools, the report noted. New York, for example, is proposing to introduce in 1985 mandatory foreign-language requirements, including a proficiency examination for 9th graders in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension, with instruction beginning in elementary grades.

Rose Hayden, president of the Council on Foreign Language and International Studies, said last week that a census now under way will probably show that about 3 percent more high-school students are taking a foreign language now than in 1980.

Begin Studies Earlier

Chief among the new panel’s recommendations was a proposal that foreign-language study begin in the early grades, when studies have shown children are most receptive to learning languages.

The board also recommended:

The establishment of local “talent searches” for students of the highest foreign-language ability. These students should be given opportunities to pursue advanced study at magnet or international high schools and to study and live abroad, the report says.

A requirement that students demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language, not the “mere accumulation of credit hours,” for both admission to and graduation from college.

The inclusion of stringent proficiency tests in the certification process for foreign-language teachers and the requirement that they demonstrate “a high level of ... teaching ability, as well as a knowledge of the people, history, and institutions of the country or region in which the language is spoken.”

Federal Role Debated

While the Carter Administration’s panel found a “scandalous” void in American language education and urged a direct infusion of federal money, the new study suggests as an alternative that a national fund be created from a “portion of the funds generated by the overseas sale of U.S. government, military, and other properties, and by interest payments on overseas technical assistance loans.” Such a fund would generate about $100 million annually, according to Mr. Holderman, who said that he had talked with members of Congress about it and received indications that it would have considerable support there.

If that recommendation were accepted by the Administration, however, it would represent a departure from the Administration’s previous moves to eliminate virtually all federal funds for foreign-language instruction.

The President’s proposed budget for fiscal year 1985 would eliminate all money for Title VI programs in the Higher Education Act, which pays for advanced study in non-Western languages. The current budget has $25 million allocated to the programs.

The new study, however, states that the money should be restored to the budget; the language commission calls the program “crucial” in providing “the adequate capacity in this country for foreign language.

But Kenneth D. Whitehead, director of the U.S. Education Department’s office of international education, said last week that “the problem we’re dealing with here is more a question of [educational] standards than a question of where the funds come from.”

On the other hand, Ms. Hayden of the National Council on Foreign Language and International Studies criticized the panel for not recommending broader federal involvement in solving the problem.

“The good news is that we have a report, but so what?” she said. “Where is the motivator? Where is the federal partnership? There’s nothing in Title VI that supports kindergarten through the 12th grade. Anyway, the money in that program isn’t even enough to buy two F-15’s.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 1984 edition of Education Week as Panel Urges More Foreign-Language Instruction


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