Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

University Trends and National Security

There have been a spate of talk shows and news stories lately discussing how universities are cutting back on modern language programs. I have a few thoughts on this issue, and I would be interested to know what the Citizens think, as many of you have a better grasp of Academic politics than I.

The Department of Defense is throwing a lot weight behind language learning. The Marines now have a language requirement for all troops being deployed to Afghanistan (see MARSOC). Language Training Detachments are being opened at major Military Bases with focus on training Special Forces. The Army in its 2010 Posture Statement launched its "Army Culture and Foreign Language Strategy". The DoD has provided millions in grants to universities such as University of South Florida, University of Maryland, UCLA, to name a few to bolster language programs. So there is now doubt that foreign language is now on the same footing as math and science as a top priority.

Therefore, I get concerned when I hear about how the University of New York at Albany is not allowing new students to major in some foreign languages, like French and Russian. Bad news is that French and Russian are considered important languages for National Security. In addition, we need to be adding programs in new languages, like Arabic, Persian-Farsi, Dari (very similar to PF), Pashto, Hindi, etc. Granted, finding qualified people in some of these languages is very difficult, but not impossible. Currently, the only foreign language increasing enrollments is Chinese. At UC Berkeley I hear they can't add the classes fast enough. Of course, I am pretty for sure it's a lot of MBA types.

To replace the Modern Languages, there is a movement in Academia that says you can teach "world culture" through Anthropology departments instead of language and that this is just as good. I think you can teach world culture, but that does not negate the need for foreign language training . Language and cultural go together. As someone who focused on Cross-Cultural communications, I can tell you that language is 70-80% of the game. Just learning "culture" doesn't do the job. And what does that mean to "learn culture", anyway? I think this is just a lazy attitude. It is hard to learn a foreign language, it takes a lot of effort and time. So what you are really saying is that we don't want our students to take time and work hard.

One proponent of this idea is Linguist John McWhorter , currently a lecturer at Columbia University and former senior fellow at conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute, who went so far during an interview with NPR's Talk of the Nation to say that after a certain age, the ability to learn language is so greatly reduced, it's pointless to start. The age he sites is 18. After that, he says you will always have an accent. Where do they dig these people up and who is paying this guy?

Bottom line, we need more languages taught in our schools at younger ages. I've always believed that and I think it's more important now than ever before. I don't even care which ones are being taught. Learning any language is useful.


Raised By Republicans said...

This is a disturbing trend on a number of levels. I am 100% certain that the cause is the constant, populist drum beat against education in this country. States refuse to fund public universities sufficiently and refuse to allow them increase tuition to come closer to the actual cost of educating a student.

The stopping of a major is not the same thing of course as stopping offering the classes. I don't have a problem with SOME universities not offering majors in foreign languages. Not every university needs to offer a major in every subject. UCLA for example offers no business major. I think that the University of Indiana has no major in engineering. My alma mater (a small private college) offer neither business nor engineering majors (you could however major in any of several foreign languages).

I think the reason the universities are discontinuing offering foreign language majors as opposed to discontinuing some other program is because they are often among the smallest majors on campus. Doctoral programs in foreign languages are often among the first targets of the budget axe (even before the undergraduate majors are discontinued). All graduate students cost the university the same amount of money. But foreign language graduate students produce the least in terms of outside revenue: few if any grants, and few students enroll in the classes.

If I were dictator of the universe, I'd fully fund the universities and require proficiency in two foreign languages to graduate from high school and at least one to graduate from university. But sadly, I do not rule the universe.

USwest said...

RBR makes a good point about not needing to offer majors in foreign languages at all universities. However, classes are being canceled as well. And this canceling reaches into High Schools.

I know of one CA State University (where I got by BA in French) that not only canceled the Major, but never replaced the single French professor when he retired. Since I graduated from the school 16 years ago, they have canceled all language courses and now only offer Spanish, and oddly enough, Portuguese. They have a rich Arabic speaking community, but have not really succeeded in starting an Arabic course, which is unfortunate.

At the local high school in the same town as the university, they fired the French teacher and canceled all classes.(The French teacher wasn't very good, so I don't blame them.) Now the only FL that can be taken in Spanish. Even German is dead and they have not added new languages, like Chinese.

If you don't have the majors, you don't get the qualified teachers. And if you don't have enthusiastic teachers, willing to work 24/7 to build strong programs, you won't get them. So it is more than money we need.

So my niece is now looking to see if she can take FL courses at the local Jr. College. In fact, she gained admission to the University on a waiver because she was unable to complete the FL requirement in High school since they fired her teacher. Instead, she took on-line courses from BYU, but I am not seeing that this was terribly effective.

A final word: There are National SMART Grants for those pursuing majors in critical Foreign Languages. Program is set to end in July 2011.

Raised By Republicans said...

That's terrible news about about your alma mater and home town high school. But I still think this is about money in the end. When universities had plenty of money they could afford to sustain programs that didn't attract large numbers of (paying) students. What I'm afraid is going to happen is that foreign languages will be the exclusive domain of well funded private and elite public colleges and universities. Public universities that depend on tuition dollars for their funding and have their tuition levels set low, either by political interference or because they see their mission as providing access to lower income students, may find themselves forced to focus on the only the most popular majors/programs.

This is not a good development. We could end up with a situation where the people best situated to use foreign languages in their work will also be best situated to find careers that pay more and don't take full advantage of their foreign language skills.

USWest said...

I agree totally. So the Feds had better start upping grants.

Another thing I heard on NPR recently was that the AP tests on Italian are being kept a live by donations and activism from the Italian-American community. Apparently, the AP Italian test was canceled at one point, but forced back into existence by special interest. So that may end up being a new wrinkle.

Dr. Strangelove said...

A military intelligence officer remarked to me a few weeks ago that we are not paying nearly enough attention to America's most valuable asset in the global war against terrorism: our amazing immigrant population, unique in the world in terms of its size and diversity. We are not reaching out to them. We are not leveraging their language skills and cultural knowledge as teachers and translators.

The current rush to train soldiers in Arabic and Pashto is important, but it is even more important to recognize that the next threat could come from anywhere. We should encourage American citizens to learn languages from every continent, even the obscure ones. (How might WWII have turned out if Japan had people who spoke Navajo?) It is clear a matter of national security.

Raised By Republicans said...

Amen Dr. S! OSS and the British Special Services made frequent use of naturalized citizens and expat communities during WWII.

The immigrant communities from the Middle East in South East Michigan should be the CIA and DOD's favorite recruiting ground not a population of automatically suspected people.

(also repealing DADT wouldn't hurt and could help enormously!)

USwest said...

Actually, guys, those agencies do recruit from those parts of the country and those communities. However, many of them don't want to work for us. Some fear for family members back home if they were to work with the government here, others are making pretty good money in their own businesses and other work. Some don't pass the background checks. It's not so simple to just go get 'em.

The U.S. has a history of relying on immigrant communities as well as heritage speakers. This is wise, however, it has also become an excuse for not encouraging the teaching of foreign languages to non-immigrant children.

We also use the excuse that everyone should learn English, so we shouldn't be teaching those Foreign Languages.

Bottom line is that we need to build our capabilities across the board. Diversity of sources is important. The military can't do it alone. So we need our school systems to do it. We need to start in Jr. High.

One thing the U.S government could do in the short run is take a language census of the foreign languages spoken by its current employees and see who they might already have that they can re-assign. The other is to offer bonus pay to civilians who demonstrate foreign language proficiency, especially in key languages. And finally, when they select service members for language training, they should place them in language programs where they may already have some language knowledge. In other words, it is a complete waste to take a recruit who is a Chinese heritage speaker or someone with a BA degree in Spanish and place him in an Arabic program. They do it all the time. Because they place people only based on numbers, they don't care what their linguistic background is.

The other silly thing they do is take someone who has learned Arabic, use him/her in ops for 3 years, then send them back for training in Serbian Croatian. Dumb. Better to send him back for more advanced training in Arabic.

Another dumb thing: kicking out homosexuals who have proven themselves to be strong linguists.

The problem has been that the military thinks there are only two languages in the world- English and Foreign. And they think you can turn out linguists as fast as tanks. This aspect of military culture is changing fast. I believe the Air Force is requiring all officers to have foreign language training. And the Marines have stepped it up as well. If those burly men can do it, we all can. If the military provides a promotion path for linguists, you'll see and even fast curve.