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Breaking the language barrier

New effort underway to help create a more multilingual America

Like the countless toddlers who've learned to speak a little Spanish by counting along on ''Sesame Street," Sara Mailander's introduction to the language came at a tender age.

But instead of Big Bird, the Boston College senior had her doting grandfather in New Mexico, who dropped nuggets of knowledge her way, she said, during their frequent long-distance phone chats.

''He would teach me little things like numbers over the phone," sparking a curiosity about languages that stuck with her, said Mailander, 21, of Beverly.

Mailander went on to take four years of Spanish in high school and another four years at Boston College, with one semester abroad in Barcelona during her junior year. She's going to law school next year, and hopes to use her language skills in her legal career, perhaps in immigration cases.

But Mailander said her interest in Spanish was not originally career-oriented.

''Only recently, to be honest, have I really noticed what an advantage it's going to be," she said. ''I just kept with it. This is something that people really need to know for work and just communication in general."

Getting more Americans to speak more languages is the goal of a yearlong initiative promoting such learning in government, business, and higher education. The Senate endorsed the effort Feb. 17 with a resolution noting that only 9.3 percent of Americans speak both their native language and another language fluently, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 52.7 percent of Europeans.

''We really need an action plan here," said Marty Abbott, who is coordinating the program, known as ''Year of Languages," for the Virginia-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a national advocacy group for language teachers on all levels. ''The world has fundamentally changed. And with that fundamental change, we've got to change our attitudes about the learning of other languages."

The country's need for more language learning was demonstrated immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Justice Department reported a backlog of untranslated documents and recordings related to terrorism investigations, while failures in intelligence and diplomacy were tied in part to a longtime lack of qualified linguists.

''On Sept. 11, we were only at 30 percent capacity of our linguistic needs in terms of government agencies," Abbott said. Government officials ''are well aware that it's a critical national interest to build an American workforce that is multilingual."

But the ''Year of Languages" program is intended to be much more than a recruiting poster for the Department of Homeland Security. With a different monthly theme and corresponding events such as teleconferences, panel discussions, and language festivals around the country, organizers hope to reach businesses, parents, communities, colleges, immigrants, and other groups with its message about the importance of foreign-language learning.

The group will spend about $100,000 in 2005 on the campaign, which includes 30-second public service announcements with information for parents on how to start foreign-language programs in their schools. Three print ads also will circulate, and the group will videotape many of its monthly events for wider distribution, including a Feb. 28 panel discussion on international engagement at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Reluctance, then change
Americans' historic reluctance to learn foreign languages is baffling to Harvard University professor Doris Sommer, a specialist in the social and intellectual benefits of bilingualism.

''It's as if all the cartographers told us the world was round, and we continued to plan trips as if the world was flat," said Sommer, who speaks Spanish and Hebrew. ''We're living in a world where no one, or at least hardly anyone, lives in a situation of monolingualism. Either he or she speaks more than one language or they have neighbors who do."

People should embrace the difficulty of language learning, she said, because thinking in two or more ''codes" improves your mind and prevents an unhealthy intolerance that comes from ''fighting off" other languages and different cultures.

Northeastern University Spanish professor Stephen Sadow was more resigned about popular resistance. ''Foreign language teachers always have to raise awareness," he said. ''That's the missionary part of our jobs."

The latest survey of foreign-language enrollment in American universities by the Modern Language Association shows mixed progress in that mission.

More students are studying foreign languages than ever before, totaling about 1.4 million student learners in the 15 leading languages in 2002. Just over half were taking Spanish, which saw a 13.7 percent increase since 1998. Only 10,584 students were learning Arabic, though that was nearly double the number in 1998.

But the overall 17 percent increase in enrollment since 1998 is tempered by a drop in the comparative credit hours devoted to foreign language. In the late 1960s, about 15 of every 100 hours were foreign language; by 2002, that was cut in half to 7.5 credit hours.

''What that tells us is that advanced competence in a wide variety of languages has not been woven into the American fabric," said Rosemary Feal, the language association's executive director. ''We want to be a nation of readiness and global competence, yet we've got monolingualism as a norm."

But at Northeastern, Sadow said, enrollments in foreign languages are on the rise as career-oriented students increasingly see the need for multilingualism in majors as diverse as the health sciences and business. The university recently added Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese to the menu of some 40 foreign languages.

''We cannot get enough sections of elementary Spanish," he said. ''And Chinese is a sleeper. It's clearly becoming a business language of choice."

At Boston College, officials are creating individualized ''language maps" for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors as part of an effort to show students their options at any stage of their academic careers. The maps will be available this fall and will detail what combination of courses, study abroad, and summer classes would result in a minor or major in a foreign language by graduation, said coordinator Daniella Padula.

Boston College associate professor Harry Rosser, who teaches Spanish language and literature, said the benefits of knowing a foreign language go way beyond career objectives.

''Spanish is not some difficult way to speak English," Rosser said. ''It's a whole different system and conveyor of culture that . . . immediately opens up all kinds of windows of opportunities."

Harvard sophomore Kavita Shah, who is learning Spanish, saw her studies much the same way.

''With every language you learn, you are opened to a whole new population that speaks that language and a whole array of cultures, and that gives you that much more agency," said Shah, 20, of New York. ''It gives you a key to all those places."

A career boost
And those opportunities don't apply only to people who do business internationally or travel abroad. Globalization is at work within the United States as well.

Former University of Rhode Island student Josh May is using his German skills, polished with study and work abroad, for a job in this country. May, 24, who graduated last spring, works as an engineer for Mercedes in Alabama.

''I'm really happy to end up where I am," May said. ''Not only is it engineering, but it's high-performance vehicles."

May credits his job success to his time abroad in Germany and Lichtenstein, where he interned for two companies as part of the university's dual-degree international engineering program.

University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Karina Shook also saw her foreign-language skills help land her a plum job.

Shook, 33, graduated in 1996 with a degree in engineering mechanics and astronautics. She also took seven semesters of Russian and did alternating work semesters at NASA.

Shook now works at Johnson Space Center in Houston, training astronauts to do space walks for the International Space Station.

Shook has taken one trip for NASA to Russia to help prepare Russian astronauts for a space launch. ''I can't explain how cool it is to go all the way over to Russia and speak to those people in their own language," she said.

Tips for a successful language course

For introductory-level college classes:

  • Opportunity to speak the language outside the classroom.

  • Exciting context, or connecting the language to other media such as film and theater.

  • Enthusiasm of professor.

    For upper-level college classes:

  • Opportunity to study abroad Incorporating many aspects of the language, including culture and history.

  • Specialized courses with practical tie-ins related to career opportunities, such as Spanish for medical students.

    For better foreign-language learning in general:

  • Better articulation of coursework between high school and college, to reduce wasted time.

  • Less focus on grammar.

  • More career-oriented approaches.

    Source: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Modern Language Association

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