Foreign-Language Learning Promoted

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By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

President Bush announced plans yesterday to boost foreign-language study in the United States, casting the initiative as a strategic move to better engage other nations in combating terrorism and promoting freedom and democracy.

"This program is a part of a strategic goal, and that is to protect this country," Bush said.

The plans, which represent an expansion of some programs and the start of a few others, aim to involve children in foreign-language courses as early as kindergarten while increasing opportunities for college and graduate school instruction. They also would draw more linguists into government service and establish a national corps of language reservists available to the Pentagon, State Department, intelligence community and other agencies in times of heightened need.

Much of the instruction is intended to focus not on the traditional European and Latin American languages that Americans have tended to study most, but on what the U.S. government has identified as languages "critical" for national security. These include Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi, among others.

Bush intends to request $114 million in fiscal 2007 for the programs, which involve the departments of State, Education and Defense, as well as the director of national intelligence, according to officials who briefed reporters on details.

The announcement came at a gathering of more than 120 U.S. university presidents at the State Department organized by the administration to focus attention on the challenges of international education.

The senior educators appeared to welcome Bush's initiative, with several calling it a positive first step toward addressing a serious shortage of linguists. But they also noted in interviews that the initial funding would be a tiny fraction of the amount needed to make a real impact.

A number of university leaders made clear as well that they are more interested in making it easier for foreign students to obtain visas to attend U.S. schools as a way of improving ties with and understanding of other countries.

Raising the visa issue himself, Bush said he wants to adjust visa policies to strike a better balance between security concerns and the entry of more students into the United States. He said he understands the "frustrations" of higher-education leaders with the visa restrictions the federal government imposed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's in our national interest that we solve visa issues," he said, drawing the first of two rounds of applause. "We're going to get it right, because the more youngsters who come to America to get educated, the more likely it is people in the world will understand the true nature of America."

Although Americans as a nation have been notoriously averse to learning foreign languages, the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader fight against terrorism have made the issue a major national security concern for administration officials.

The U.S. government has found itself critically short of troops, diplomats and intelligence analysts skilled in the languages of the places where much of the battle is taking place. Further, widespread perceptions of America as culturally insensitive have contributed to the precipitous decline in the U.S. image abroad.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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