Rhode Island Crafts Road Map to Learning Languages

By Erik W. Robelen — June 27, 2012 3 min read
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Rhode Island leaders in education, business, and politics this month unveiled a blueprint to ensure that students learn a foreign language and build their understanding of other cultures.

“It’s not just nice to know another language; it’s increasingly essential,” said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, in a press release.

The announcement comes as, just yesterday, the Council on Foreign Relations published an article about the growing economic imperative for Americans to learn languages beyond English, which calls for the federal government to launch a “Languages for Jobs” program.

The Rhode Island Road Map to Language Excellence, developed with some federal financial assistance, recommends a route to language and cultural proficiency that starts in prekindergarten and continues through college, the release notes. Leaders in the state say that language and cultural skills are needed to maintain a competitive state workforce that can function effectively both locally and globally.

One goal is to develop a set of pilot school sites that offer dual-language immersion at the elementary level, with half of each day’s instruction in English and the other in a second language, according to the announcement. This would start in three to five districts next fall, with such offerings available across all the state’s districts by 2016-17.

The president of the University of Rhode Island, David M. Dooley, billed the initiative as a way for the state to distinguish itself in the global marketplace.

“It is an opportunity for Rhode Island to become a magnet for business and commerce,” he said in a statement. “This is the place where global people can do business, visit, and become partners.”

The first step to carry the plan forward is to develop greater public awareness about the benefits of world language proficiency, the press release says, as well as support for several key recommendations in the plan. They include:

• Create a process for the development of a set of school-based pilot programs for dual-immersion-style language learning;

• Develop incentives to attract, prepare, and retain language education teachers;

• Emphasize the need to measure language acquisition by proficiency levels, not seat time in the classroom.

• Create a Rhode Island Center for Language Teaching, Learning, and Culture, led by several state higher education institutions; and

• Hire a supervisor for Rhode Island’s world-language education initiative.

Rhode Island is one of six states to have crafted such a road map for learning foreign languages, the release says. The state projects have received support from the Language Flagship, a federal initiative of the National Security Education Office in collaboration with U.S. universities.

Meanwhile, the new essay published by the Council of Foreign Relations makes the case that learning foreign languages should be a national priority.

“In an increasingly competitive international economy, a workforce with more market-relevant foreign language skills is a strategic economic asset for the United States,” write Terrence G. Wiley, the president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, and two of his colleagues at the organization, Sarah Catherine Moore and Margaret S. Fee. “Yet foreign language education is on the decline, particularly at the primary level when foreign languages are best learned.”

The authors suggest, as one way to address the matter, that the federal government create an interagency “Languages for Jobs” initiative. As part of the initiative, they write, the U.S. Department of Education would develop foreign language “education accountability metrics and primary-level immersion programming that leverages the country’s existing multilingual population.”

The focus of this new initiative would be foreign languages deemed especially critical to U.S. economic competitiveness, including Mandarin Chinese, Portugese, German, and Hindi, the article says.

The authors note that just recently the $26 million federal Foreign Language Assistance program at the Education Department was zeroed out. They suggest that funding for Languages for Jobs should be on par with the approximately $100 million they say is spent each year on the federal National Security Language Initiative, a multi-agency initiative launched in 2006 with support from President George W. Bush.

“Facing a global economic challenge, the United States must build a multilingual workforce prepared to thrive in today’s world market,” the article says. “Doing so requires that the federal government engage in a comprehensive, interagency national initiative to improve foreign language education in the United States.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.