Language handicap hurting America
The Seoul Times
October 24, 2005

By Domenico Maceri
http://theseoultimes.com/ST/?url=/ST/db/read.php?idx=380


SANTA MARIA, California A few days after Sept. 11, one of my community college students informed me he was dropping my class. After seeing so much horror, studying French seemed trivial to him.

It's easy to understand my student's reaction. Almost every aspect of ordinary life seemed trivial after the attack. Millions of Americans found it difficult just to go to work and bring their children to school, and impossible to imagine shopping, seeing a movie, or reading a book. French? Who felt like going on vacation?

It didn't take me long to realize, however, how important knowledge of foreign languages would be. The devastation in New York was aimed at the United States, but its effects were international. The victims of the World Trade Center included people from more than 60 countries, and the response to the attack will be international. We need to be able to communicate with our partners. Cooperation with other nations to establish an international antiterrorist coalition involves more than just the English language.

We also need to know the languages of our adversaries. If not, we'll continue to be at a serious disadvantage. That a considerable body of intelligence information has not been translated and analyzed is a serious problem. It's not surprising that shortly after the attack the FBI issued an urgent request for Arabic and Farsi speakers.

There are not nearly enough of them. But how do we get people trained in these and other critical languages?

Unfortunately it's a long-term process. The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, which teaches languages to American civilian and military personnel, says that for an easy language such a Spanish, French, or German, it takes about a year of full-time study for a student to become fluent. Hard languages such as Arabic which doesn't share a similarity with English take three to four years.

The time to learn a "critical language" can be shortened considerably, however, if the student already has a command of another language in addition to English. Several studies have shown that if kids grow up with two languages they'll have a much easier time learning a third one. It's the first foreign language that is difficult. The second foreign language is easier than the first; the third is easier than the second, etc.

Unfortunately for us, the U.S. not only has a shortage of speakers of Arabic but also has a shortage of people who speak any foreign languages, people who would find it relatively easy to pick up a third or fourth language. And it's a situation we've created for ourselves by our fear of immigrants and bilingualism.

For years, Americans have been so terrified of immigrants' "unwillingness" to learn English that they have pushed 26 states to declare English the official language.

Our determination to remain monolingual is also evident in the antibilingual education movement. Again, the fear is that immigrant children are not learning English fast enough. Thus California and Arizona voters have approved initiatives that virtually eliminate bilingual education. Similar measures are in the works in Colorado and other states.

Unfortunately, the antibilingual education and English-only movements have prevented America from using the resources we have to develop a multilingual population. This has diminished our future ability with languages. While English is certainly important, it is becoming apparent to everyone that we do not live in a monolingual world and knowing more than one language is not luxury but a necessity.

Since learning languages takes a long period of time, we need to create an awareness that knowing two languages is not just desirable but also in our national interest. Some bright spots are beginning to occur. As some states are dismantling bilingual education programs, a positive side effect is occurring.

Some local school districts are creating dual-language schools as an alternative to bilingual education. Although these programs are not widespread, they are growing because many American parents want their children to grow up with two languages. These schools are using the valuable skills immigrant children bring to this country to help all children learn new languages.

To make people fluent faster, more immigrants or their children who already have some basic familiarity with critical languages need to be encouraged to study them. We should see bilingual/bicultural individuals not as a hindrance but rather as assets.

American history teaches us that there is a group of people with linguistic skills who can and will help federal and local agencies. Immigrants who are familiar with the critical languages will prove definite assets. During World War II Japanese Americans, Italian Americans, and German Americans provided critical linguistic resources to the U.S.

Monolingualism translates into isolationism. The U.S. can afford neither. Knowing several languages and cultures is an essential piece of the puzzle if we are going to win the war on terrorism.

Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California. His articles have appeared in many newspapers and won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.