The New Republic

Tongue Tied

by Michael Erard

Last fall, the College Board asked 14,000 high schools in the United States how many of them planned to offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses in Chinese in the fall of 2006, in preparation for the first Chinese language AP exam in 2007. The Board expected a few hundred to say yes, but jaws hit the floor when 2,347 schools said they were interested in Chinese. For those who believe that American children should learn more languages, especially those of economic competitors like China, this is good news. But there's one
problem: We don't have enough qualified teachers. The system would need an estimated 2,000 more officially certified Chinese language teachers before all the interested schools could offer AP Chinese. A 2004 report by the Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools counted only 110 high school-level teachers.


Shortages of language workers are affecting not just education but surveillance and military operations, the court system, and hospitals.
In 2004, the FBI's backlog of untranslated surveillance doubled because it did not have enough foreign language analysts. A 2000 survey of uninsured patients in 16 cities found that more than half of those who needed an interpreter said the hospital couldn't provide one in a timely fashion. Over a recent six-month period, the lone interpreter in the Flagstaff, Arizona, municipal court had about 45 percent more requests than he could fill.


In response to these shortages, Hawaii Senator Daniel Akaka introduced the National Foreign Language Coordination Act last May. The bill calls for the creation of a national foreign language council made up of representatives of 14 federal agencies. The council would be headed by a "national foreign language director." This czar, the bill says, will develop and implement a "national foreign language strategy" that would increase the number of diplomats, intelligence analysts, teachers, medical and social services professionals, court interpreters, and law enforcement officers who can use foreign languages.

Such recognition is clearly overdue, and many language professionals are understandably excited about Akaka's legislation. "[Such attention] is an absolute necessity for our survival as a nation,"
says Alexander Rainof, a professor of translation and interpretation at California State University-Long Beach and the chair of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. But, unless we want our national security and economic competitiveness to continue to be compromised, there needs to be a vast conceptual shift in how Americans think about learning and utilizing languages. The real solution will come in treating language more like a commodity, such as gasoline, that involves a web of producers, a complex supply chain, and regulatory oversight. But the language czar, as construed by Akaka's bill, is unlikely to have the power to make this happen.


How did the United States, a place where more than 150 immigrant languages are spoken (according to the world-language compendium Ethnologue), get into a situation in which it doesn't have enough language workers? Aside from a legacy of misunderstanding bilingualism and encouraging immigrants to speak only English, it stems from too few native English speakers in the United States studying foreign languages--and that those who do view it as a cultural pursuit, rather than as an economic skill. Foreign language departments and universities mainly teach their students to read foreign literature, but most language work doesn't involve reading Proust in the original.
Rather, it calls for technical expertise in subject areas like engineering, medicine, or law.


Just as the United States has never had an official language, it has never had a person who oversees a national language policy and balances the needs of the military, intelligence agencies, education, academia, and industry.
The idea for Akaka's language czar comes from a June 2004 meeting, sponsored by the Department of Defense and the University of Maryland, where--for the first time-- representatives from government, business, and education discussed what a national language policy might look like. The white paper that emerged, "A Call to Action for National Foreign Language Capabilities,"
recommends that a "nationally recognized individual with credentials and abilities across all of the sectors" be appointed to develop a national language strategy, establish relationships among "[f]ederal, state, and local government agencies, academia, industry, labor, and heritage communities," and lead a public campaign to raise awareness about careers that require foreign language skills and cultural understanding.


But, as currently envisioned, the language czar has no real power to enact change. Akaka's bill gives the czar a budget for p.r. but no oversight over anyone else's budget, so the czar wouldn't set goals and steer a national language strategy to meet them as much as hope for the cooperation of the agencies represented on the council.
Akaka's bill doesn't specify to whom the czar would report, either, which leaves no one responsible when the goals aren't met. "Having a symbolic person, if you can't get anything else, would be fine," says Richard Brecht, the director of the University of Maryland Center for the Advanced Study of Language. "But having someone who has reporting responsibilities, who's supposed to report to the National Security Council and Congress on the progress made in education, industry, and the military--that gives it more teeth."


To make a dent in the shortages, a properly construed czar could act tactically and strategically. In the short term, such a czar could solve the Chinese teacher shortage by arranging certification waivers for skilled teachers at Chinese community schools. To get intelligence-related language work done, he or she should encourage the intelligence agencies to adopt the National Security Agency's "multilevel security clearance system," which allows low-risk work to be done by analysts who are waiting for full security clearances. And he or she should make sure that other federal agencies, as well as court systems and hospital systems, develop on-the-job certification training programs.


The czar could also help match language workers with available jobs.
Currently, few speakers of minority languages have an incentive to invest time and money in training and certification, because translating jobs in most parts of the country are too few. Bill Hewitt, at the National Center for State Courts, has proposed regionally based interpreter resource centers that would keep databases of available workers, who could be hired by federal, state, and local agencies. As with so many potential solutions to the language-expertise shortage, this system could exist now, but it doesn't, and the missing piece isn't a person in Washington, D.C., exhorting Americans to learn languages.


The czar should have the power to set ambitious goals with long-term payoffs. He should ask Congress for $25 million per year until 2020 to establish 100 dual-language K-12 immersion programs in the United States in five strategic languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Russian, and Korean. Those students would eventually feed into the universities, where the czar would have explained to presidents and deans that, by offering degrees in language work (in addition to literature and conversation), they would provide jobs to graduates.
Right now, the only full-fledged bachelor's degree in both interpretation and translation is offered by California State University-Long Beach, where students take Spanish courses that prepare them to work in medicine, law, and business. Despite the need for PhDs in technology design and interpretation theory, only five comprehensive master's-level programs exist in the United States. The czar should ask for $17 million to fund a language industry association through the Department of Commerce to link language work and regional economic development. The model here is Canada, where, in 2003, the government pledged $17 million USD to develop language technology and help Canadian language-services firms build their businesses.


Given our laissez-faire attitude about language, a centralized approach is necessary. But getting people to think of languages as one of America's great social resources and potential economic assets will require a czar who's more than just a preacher but who can put in place a national language strategy to take us through the next 50 years.


Michael Erard 's first book, about the science of verbal blundering, will be published by Pantheon in 2006.