A Congressional Perspective on Language and Culture
January 26, 2011
Thank you all for your professional interest in language learning and asking me to share some thoughts with you.
1200 years ago, Emperor Charlemagne said, “When you learn a new language, you gain a new soul.” Since then, countless millions who have learned another language have experienced that great feeling of gaining a new soul.
In 1964, I had the pleasure of learning another language in preparing for the Peace Corps in Columbia, South America. I learned that language learning can be its own greatest reward – for me it opened up a whole new world
of friendships, food, music art, literature and history and politics.
I’d like to begin by reciting a Spanish poem by Pedro
La paz no está en los lagos solitarios, ni en los tupidos bosques,
donde los vientos guardan sus secretos. No está tampoco
(aunque haya quien lo diga)
entre las tumbas.
La paz no está en los muertos.
Ni en las montañas coronadas de nieve, ni en los profundos mares.
Ni entre la multitude ni en el desierto. Por la simple razón de que la paz no existe: hay que crearla dentro.
If you speak Spanish and understand what I just recited, you probably felt elation for recognizing the sounds and words, for being able to feel the impact of the deliberately short yet powerful words.
But if you don’t speak Spanish well enough to comprehend this poem, then your feelings were very different – uncomprehending, perhaps bewilderment and frustration.
Sadly, Americans are well known around the globe for their inability to speak other languages. Fewer than 50% of our high school students study a second language. In comparison, 2 billion people are learning English today, all around the world.
The result is that the United States will have millions and millions of Americans who can’t communicate in languages other than English . Last night, the President spoke of the need for our Nation to be prepared for the
st21 Century. He talked about a global economy, he mentioned of our Nation’s role in business, diplomacy
and the role of the military. None of these things can be accomplished to our benefit without foreign language skills.
By the way, here’s what the poem says, in an English version:
Peace is not in the solitary lakes,
nor in the thick forests,
where the winds guard their secrets.
It is also not (though some will say so) among the tombs. Peace is not in the dead.
Nor in the mountains crowned with snow
nor in the deep oceans.
Nor in the crowd
nor in the desert.
For the simple reason that peace does not exist: One has to create it within.
Now, I can attest from my own experience that foreign language acquisition has no short cuts. It takes time, effort, persistence, and motivation. This morning I’d like
to offer some suggestions to improve foreign language capacity in the United States:
The DoD can’t and shouldn’t, go it alone. There
should be close cooperation between the
Department of Education, the State Department, and
the universities and schools, so that we can build a
reliable pipeline of linguistically prepared
candidates coming into our military and intelligence
For the schools: Start early, stay long. We need to
start language learning in kindergarten, and
continue to provide opportunities for language
studies through secondary and college education. Make more languages available to higher levels in the schools, and make language learning compulsory and rigorous.
The most efficient way to learn a language is immersion. We should create greater capacity here and abroad for immersion studies.
We should employ the appropriate use of
technology for language learning and for deploying language expertise. Including, simulation, interpretation via telephony, handheld translators, voice generation, semantic search engines, all should be explored to aid our language mission.
Build language and cultural capacity by strategically leveraging existing foreign language expertise:
network language teachers, heritage communities,
DLI-alumni, Peace Corp returnees. Make it a
national priority. This is Sputnik II. It’s not an
Incentivize. Make language ability a prized
commodity. Because this is not only a national
defense issue, but also a social and economic issue.
It has everything to do with the United States (as the
President said) being a strong nation in this new,
globalized world, and its citizens continuing to enjoy
a high standard of living in a democracy.
So how do we get from here to there? For starters, I applaud Dr. Stanley for convening this Language and Culture Summit. He and I have discussed this issue several times and I know he is personally committed to getting it right.
I offer 4 suggestions for DOD:
Create a permanent “Language and Culture Czar” on the Joint Chief of Staffs to direct foreign language efforts within the Services and in tandem with OSD efforts. The position should be a flag or general officer, ideally an FAO or a similarly qualified civilian who has foreign language fluency in at least two languages. This person would drive policymaking and policy implementation within each service, and in joint environments. I would go one step further and suggest that anyone administering foreign
language programs in DoD should be required to speak at least one foreign language.
Match foreign language abilities with language billets and provide bonus pay. I recognize this is a heavy lift but, in my opinion, it is the direction DoD should be heading to leverage its investment in foreign language training at DLI and other places.
Shift the emphasis from passive language skills –
reading and listening – to active communication
skills – speaking and writing, and translation and interpretation which encompass the cultural context of language learning.
(Active communication skills are absolutely critical
stfor our 21 century national security professionals to conduct their jobs. And, just because you can speak a foreign language doesn’t mean you can translate and interpret, which requires a specialized skill set. We know how to do this technical teaching, it just so happens that it is only taught at one graduate school in the United States, which happens to be in my district!)
Increase the number of Foreign Area Officers based on the recommendations of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Report that says FAOs are model officers of the future because they have language ability,
advanced degrees, and experience in joint
operations. With military end strength of 3 million,
we have only 1,400 billets for FAOs. Moreover, 23%
of FAOs are filling non-FAO coded billets. Not only
do we need more FAOs but we need them to be
assigned to the right jobs!
And we need continuing education for FAOs. The
Joint Foreign Area Officer Skill Sustainment Pilot
Program, based in my district at the Naval
Postgraduate School, provides FAOs with advanced
education and language skill in cooperation with DLI.
But is it only a “pilot program” that must be made
permanent in 2012. I urge each of you here in this
room to make this program a priority.
I want to end my remarks by telling you about another program, coincidently located in my district that provides a similar type of cross cultural education. It is the Center for Stabilization and Reconstruction Studies at NPS. The short courses offered by the Center are attended by our