Tuesday, October 04, 2005

No Need to Speak Western European


As a follow-up to yesterday's piece about French engagement with China, I'm again leaning on the Christian Science Monitor. This time it's an op-ed piece lamenting the lack of U.S. Chinese speakers, and what two senators are trying to do about it:

Despite talk of trade wars and military confrontation, polls show that more Americans have a favorable view of the Chinese than five or 10 years ago. Regrettably, this has yet to translate into any large-scale effort to engage anything besides Chinese factories.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee want this to change. In May, they introduced the United States-China Cultural Engagement Act, a bill to provide a modest but symbolic $1.3 billion over five years to tackle shortages of Chinese language classes in the US, as well as strengthen cultural, educational, and commercial exchanges with China. These senators are wisely suggesting that the United States take a policy of "engagement" with China seriously.

I think Sens. Lieberman and Alexander are right to think long-term: In 20 years their program, if it's passed and funded, will help the U.S. address China by the time it is a serious competitor in arenas other than the economic. I only wish they had added financing for languages like Arabic, Pashtu, Urdu and Hindi, all of which are important in the near-term.

The senators may have decided that the battle over learning these languages is already lost, though, and that U.S. efforts in regions where they are spoken will rise or fall on the current stock of U.S. linguists and translators. After all, the current administration hasn't yet made a serious attempt to increase the number of civilians speaking "strategic" languages like Arabic and Chinese, choosing to tie itself into knots by trying to hire native speakers of these languages who somehow don't have any ties to the land of their birth.

I'd love to see a return to the levels of financing of language programs that existed during the Cold War, when it was not only easy to find good Slavic-language programs all over the United States but even possible to get a paying job after taking a degree—all because successive Congresses and Presidents took seriously, for decades, the need for fluent speakers.

I remember that in 1984 an astronomy classmate of mine at the University of Maryland spoke Russian fluently, despite her all-American background and somewhat sheltered upbringing (she was considering transferring to Bob Jones University). She considered this normal, as Russian was offered (thanks to federal dollars, no doubt) throughout high school in her suburban Maryland school district, which surprised me coming from a Hudson Valley, New York district that barely mustered Spanish and French.

Bravo to Sens. Lieberman and Alexander for realizing that the U.S. won't need even more trustworthy citizens who speak, say, Flemish in 2025:

The road to successful communication with China is a long one. Only 2.2 million of 290 million Americans speak Chinese, and at least 85 percent of them are of Chinese descent. This deficiency should be unsurprising given that 98 percent of US higher education language enrollment is in Western European languages.

(Thanks as usual to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

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