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A Language-Challenged U.S.

January 22, 2005

Last year, leaders from business and government agencies met in Maryland to address the extraordinary demand for employees who speak foreign languages. You can bet they weren't looking for French or German speakers. They need Mandarin, Korean and Arabic.

So while educators seriously debate whether sign-language classes should count as a foreign language, as The Times reported last week, they bypass the real issue: Tant pis, American public schools are desperately behind the times when it comes to teaching languages. With few exceptions, they offer the same European triumvirate as 50 years ago -- Spanish, French and German -- and start teaching languages far too late.

The big three account for 94% of all students learning a foreign language, according to a 2002 report by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Add Latin and Italian and it becomes 98%. Practically no one is learning languages from Asia, Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Salaam, or in its cousin language, shalom, anyone?

Linguist Benjamin Whorf wrote nearly a century ago that culture shapes language. Thus, through studying language, students gain insight into another way of thinking. Language skills lead to better-paying jobs and, in poly-cultural L.A., help us all communicate better, ja?

Yet public schools stick to the languages of Western European cultures, the ones most familiar to Westerners. With the obvious exception of Spanish, these are not the languages likely to be spoken by our neighbors and sought by employers.

Language instruction is mired in inertia. It's hard for schools to find textbooks and teachers for rarely taught languages, so they don't bother looking. In a kind of vicious circle, textbook publishers assume there's no market, and speakers of those languages don't seek teaching credentials. And although younger children pick up languages far more readily than teenagers, only 8% of California students take a foreign language before high school.

A few energetic schools show it's possible to do better. A school district in south Orange County teaches Chinese starting in kindergarten. Two Garden Grove high schools have offered Vietnamese, in response to Vietnamese American parents who don't want their children to lose the language of their heritage. Instead of bemoaning the narrowness of language fluency, corporations and the U.S. Department of Education should be targeting grants at schools to modernize their language departments. Comprende?

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