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Language Fluency Means Security
Special Contribution
By Domenico Maceri
Native American language map

Given the serious shortages of linguists at the federal level, the FBI recently had to "borrow" 17 officers from the New York City Police Department. The NYPD has about 470 officers who can speak foreign languages including some indispensable ones such as Arabic, Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, Dari, and Punjabi.

Because these languages are critical in fighting terrorism, the US government has begun to push schools to teach them. Arabic, for example, has been designated a strategic language and some funds are being provided to schools across the country to introduce and expand its offerings.

In some ways it's working. Arabic Enrollments in American colleges and universities have increased 92 percent from 1998 to 2002, according to the Modern Language Association. The actual figure of students studying Arabic has reached 10,600.

In spite of that, most American college and university students studying languages choose European languages. Spanish, French, German, and Italian account for about 98 percent of foreign language enrollments in US post-secondary institutions.

NYPD officers

Most of those studying foreign languages take one or two semesters and never really develop proficiency in the language.

Reaching some kind of professional competency in an "easy" language for Americans to learn, such as Spanish or French, takes about 500 hours of instructions. That is the equivalent of several semesters of college study.

A "difficult" language, one with a different alphabet that has little or no connection to English, requires at least twice that long to reach the same level of fluency.

Although the number of students learning languages has increased, proficiency requires a long time and language study should begin much earlier than the freshman year in college.

The US government provides funds to schools wishing to set up dual language programs, which teach school subjects in two languages from kindergartner to high school. Yet again, the majority of these schools focus on English and Spanish although some of them include a "difficult" language such as Chinese or Korean.

Native American language speakers

But the groundwork needs to occur at the local level since the federal government leaves education mostly in the hands of local districts. Thus unless the local School Board takes the initiative, kids will be denied the opportunity to grow up bilingual.

Unfortunately, bilingualism is not very valued in the US. In the last ten years or so California, Arizona, and Massachusetts have virtually eliminated their bilingual education programs. It's the kids of immigrants who have the best chance of becoming bilingual. The elimination of bilingual programs is therefore a serious setback.

The linguistic gifts brought in by these kids and their parents are shunned in favor of English only programs. Their linguistic abilities are perceived as a cancer to be cured and a danger to the glue that binds the country together.

That is a myopic view of the world. It's not only shortsighted but it also devalues the humanity of immigrants and their contributions. It says to them that to become Americans you have to forget your native language.

Navajo Indian woman and baby

Never mind that your native language could help the country become safer. Using the linguistic resources of immigrants helped the US win World War II. Italian and Japanese Americans helped the US military with their linguistic abilities, saving many lives and reducing the length of the war. Even Navajo, a Native American language, was used by US military personnel. Because of its complexities, the Japanese could not break the Navajo code used by the US military.

This lack of appreciation of foreign languages is dangerous because the terrorists we are trying to fight use languages we don't understand. They, on the other hand, understand our language. We are at a significant disadvantage because of our love affair with monolingualism.

Americans need to stop burying their heads in the "English-only sand." We need more Americans to learn languages, which will enable us to understand and get along with the rest of the world.

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Other Articles by Domenico Maceri
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Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.






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