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The International Benefits of Language Education

Michael Nugent, Martha “Marty” Abbott , Esther Brimmer, and Sanford J. Ungar discuss the importance of language education to the U.S. on the international stage

This summer, the Council on Foreign Relations ( convened a meeting of experts to discuss foreign language learning in the U.S. education system, as well as learning methods that go beyond the classroom walls and the value of foreign language learning to U.S. national security. Here is a key excerpt:

UNGAR: Michael, do you have to—do you sort of proselytize? Has [Defense] Secretary Mattis heard your pitch yet?
NUGENT: I don’t think the secretary has heard it, but I know he was very engaged when he was wearing the uniform… Yes, we do proselytize all the time, that’s kind of our mission. It’s part of our statute to advocate for language learning. We do a lot of outreach.
But I think our biggest problem is—is that many people tell me, “oh, yeah, I took Spanish in high school, it was terrible, I can’t say a word.” Well, that’s our biggest problem, it’s that some of the teaching that happened in the past was pretty bad.
And Marty’s organization [ACTFL] is working very hard, as we are through our various programs, trying to get students learning effectively, so when they graduate from college, they’re not only able to order a beer, maybe they can actually sit up here. Our students who finish the Flagship Program at 26 universities across the country doing the language flagship in Korean, in Persian even, in twelve universities doing Chinese, five doing Arabic, four doing Russian—when those students finish, they can sit on this panel and have this conversation in those target languages.
UNGAR: How many of those students are there now altogether?
NUGENT: Currently enrolled? Currently enrolled, we have signed up a little over a thousand, but there are 2,000 taking courses in the programs across the country.
UNGAR: And how many have come through the program altogether, if that’s meaningful?
NUGENT: It is meaningful because it takes a while and the program is fairly new. It does involve an overseas program. But I believe we have fully certified around 500 people that have gone through this program, that have tested at the level three or the ILR, which means you’re professionally proficient. It means they’re like those folks who come from Europe and speak here on this stage in English. They’re using Chinese, Arabic, and Russian at that level. It’s pretty amazing.
UNGAR: The same level as people who come here?
NUGENT: Who come here from Europe, who are sitting up here having the same conversation. We are now doing a video project where we’re actually going to be sampling these students sitting in the kind of environment we are in now, speaking the language, and having people ask them questions. It is pretty amazing.
UNGAR: So, to ask an awkward question, if we have a foreign policy now that is characterized as an “America first” foreign policy, does it have room for promoting language study? Or is that a setback, too?
ABBOTT: You know, one thing we’ve found is that languages, for many reasons, resonate on both sides of the aisle.
NUGENT: That’s true.
ABBOTT: And we have just had a national report released, and it was commissioned by Congress.
UNGAR: This is the study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
ABBOTT: Right, America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century. And two Democratic and two Republican senators, as well as two Democratic and two Republican House members, commissioned the study. And we’re also seeing that at the state level with the Seal of Biliteracy. We have 26 states now that have enacted some kind of documentation on a high school senior’s transcript that demonstrates competence in two languages. And that has been passed by—
UNGAR: That’s a pretty big step.
ABBOTT: —state legislatures that tend to be fairly conservative.
BRIMMER: It’s interesting because we similarly see a bipartisan understanding that it’s important to invest in international competencies, so we, of course, look particularly at study abroad and international students coming to the U.S. And what’s striking is we just take something like the Simon bill, which was introduced both by Senator Durbin and Senator Wicker—
UNGAR: But was never enacted.
BRIMMER: Right, but reintroduced again, you know. And what’s interesting is it is actually saying that the ability to study abroad, which helps with immersion and really learning a language to a high level of competency, that this is an important skill for the U.S., and that being able to create greater access by funding to institutions would be beneficial.
What’s interesting is that particularly increasing access to study abroad is just as important for international affairs speakers and specialists as for an inner-city kid. You could be on a rural farm—it’s not a red state, blue state [issue]—it’s how do we get more Americans to have these opportunities. And that’s a bipartisan issue.
UNGAR: I have heard a person of some significance in this very room say that he thinks it’s not a great idea to waste your chits in college on language courses, that you should acquire language in some other informal ways but not spend your valuable X number of courses in college studying languages.
NUGENT: I would like to take that one because we’ve got great examples of how that is in fact probably true if the language is poorly taught. In the case of the Flagship Program, not only are we making liberal arts central to an engineer or whatever the major might be—because remember, we’re not doing language majors through Flagship, we’re saying to the Flagship major, “You, as an environmental science, or health sciences, or engineering student at UT”—for example—“doing Arabic at the University of Texas, you’re committing to learning to the highest levels possible, that is the professional level, while you’re in undergraduate study.” What ends up happening is that students’ central aspect of everything they do in engineering or health sciences focuses around their focus area of Arabic studies. And it just makes the richest experience for these students. It’s like an honors program. They come out and they are transformed, but also their disciplines are transformed. They are acting and working in their disciplines. When they go overseas, they study in their disciplines, so we are creating a kind of a mini honors program nationally that’s focused around this.
So, I would say your colleague is probably right if the language is poorly taught, because anything poorly taught is a waste of time. And I think that that’s usually what people are referencing. “I took, you know, language X in college, it was a waste of time.” Well, we’re trying to change that, and we’re trying to set very clear goals, very clear expectations, and then allowing, through funding and other mechanisms and working with universities, the creation of opportunities for these folks to meet these expectations.
UNGAR: I don’t know how many other people remember this. I was particularly sensitive to it as a college president at the time. But at some point, when he was running for president, Newt Gingrich—oh, I think I know when it was, 2012—mocked Mitt Romney for speaking French, and he said that he sounded just like John Kerry, he said at the time. (Laughter.) That was a pretty high level—a guy speaking who has a lot of people he resonates with as a politician. That’s one that I’d ask you to address.
The other one is this perennial effort, which I think is perhaps not active at the moment, to declare English the official language of the U.S., which—I don’t think that bill has ever passed either house of Congress. S. I. Hayakawa, the late senator from California, was the great proponent of it, and having his Japanese name, I think people felt that lent it somehow some more credibility.
It never achieved its goal, but it was a pretty powerful influence. So, how do we address those two phenomena in the face of a new awareness about studying language?
ABBOTT: I think we need to create a new normal in this country the way it is around the world. In almost every other country of the world, if it’s not an anglophone country, it’s very normal to grow up speaking more than one language.
I think what happened in the case of Newt Gingrich criticizing was that maybe there was some resentment and jealousy, thinking, oh, he’s trying to show off and show that he’s so smart because he knows another language. There’s still that mentality in this country.
UNGAR: You know, there are circles where it’s sort of frowned upon to show off that you speak another language.
ABBOTT: Right. Right. So again, I think it’s starting students early. And there are many students now in what we term dual-language programs where they’re learning half the curriculum in one language and the other half of the curriculum in English. And they’re growing up with language proficiencies that are going to assure that they can get into the Flagship Program because it’s a long sequence, and it’s going to be part of their normal. And that’s what I think we need to try to create.
BRIMMER: I’ll just share this point also about the opportunities that are opened up by speaking languages, and even one just on a foreign policy point. In my previous life when I was at the State [Department], one of the things we would do at the International Organizations Bureau, of course, was place Americans in international organizations. And some countries are masters at this, of getting their nationals on the international staffs helping shape policy.
But the U.S.—we’re actually underrepresented, literally, an underrepresented country amongst the United Nations staff. And remember, at the United Nations and at NATO, the working languages are English and French. So part of our job was actually to place Americans in key jobs. And usually we’d have brilliant people, great scientists, all sorts of people we could place in international organizations. Usually, the problem was finding people with the language capabilities. And so, for foreign policy reasons, you wanted to be able to make sure you had Americans in key positions, but we needed them to speak another language.
UNGAR: Michael, what do you—I don’t imagine people say to you, “English ought to be the official language of the country,” because they know better. But what would you say if they did say that to you?
NUGENT: Well, I know that organizations that work worldwide know the realities of their workforce, of their mission. And I know for a fact that many of the government agencies that we work for in promoting the language work of the National Security Education Program, those folks are well aware of the need.
So, I think that the proof—back to your earlier question about, is it easier now than before. I would say it’s easier now because we’ve actually created through some of our efforts a momentum. We’ve created students that we can put up here on stage now consistently, not just a couple, but a whole bunch, 500 of them that can get up here on this stage and do this kind of thing in that target language. Once you start showing that—
UNGAR: I can tell you’re very proud of that.
NUGENT: We are, because we were told it couldn’t be done. When we started this, we were told—you remember that, Marty—we were told, “that cannot be done, students are not capable of doing that.” And they are, and we’ve proved it.
I think that the point is, as time moves on, more and more of these people move into positions. For example, some of the big companies—investment companies will get these people as interns, and they’ll say, “how can we get ten more of these?” because they never realized that these people existed and could do the kind of work that they do.
So, I’m very optimistic about the more we do the work that we’re doing, the more that people will get behind it. Yes, there will always be skeptics…




Michael Nugent is director of the Defense Language and National Security Education Office, U.S. Department of Defense.

Esther Brimmer is executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators and a former adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Martha “Marty” Abbott is executive director of American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and executive director of Lead with Languages.

Sanford J. Ungar is director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University.

A complete transcript of the discussion is available at

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