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Bridging the Gap Between Awareness and Action

Trey Calvin explains how to advocate for America’s languages

Imagine if we thought about math the same way we think about world languages in our school system in the U.S. today. Ever thought what that might look like?

To start, most American students wouldn’t even have to worry about studying simple addition and subtraction until high school. And because of the current gap of qualified teachers, students taking sequenced math courses, like algebra I and II, would be forced into the same class period performing the same tasks. But that’s ok, because being proficient enough to grasp Algebra II would require graduate school level training, out of reach for the majority of pupils. The scope and sequence of the Sciences, for instance, would be limited by the level of math proficiency students brought to the classroom. Of course, this is not the case, nor will it be. Subjects like math, science, and English are perceived as the foundations of a basic education, a right provided to all students in order to prepare them to participate in civic life and have more opportunities than the previous generation. But languages are becoming an education right in our society. As our country becomes more diverse, our economy becomes more global, bilingualism is the new prerequisite in fulfilling the promise we make to our students. A 2016 research paper entitled, “Realizing the Economic Advantages of a Multilingual Workforce,” makes the case that because of the social and economic drivers “in the 21st century, language will be as important to business as technology was in the last century.” If we believe that the future is multilingual, then literacy in math is just as important to civic life as literacy in several languages.

Being armed with talking points and data on the importance of languages to national security, the economy, and society doesn’t ameliorate the challenges we face; it merely exposes the gap between awareness and action. Bridging this gap is the purpose of advocacy. Whether you are participating in your local PTA, starting a Seal of Biliteracy program, or writing letters to elected representatives, by communicating with those in power about issues that concern you or your stakeholders, you are an advocate. So, what are best-practices in advocating for a cause? How do you nudge people to take action on an issue that may not even be on their radar?

Preaching to the Choir
Back when I started working on political campaigns, I noticed a common practice that I believed was counter-intuitive to the art of persuasion. To me, elections were about presenting all voters with a choice, winning over as many as possible through well-argued policy solutions to issues that mattered to them. Imagine my surprise when the senior political staff would send our candidate to stump in overwhelming “friendly” locations. Our polling showed that this or that neighborhood were already likely to vote for us. I asked why we were sending the candidate out to preach to the choir.

“Because that’s how you get them to sing,” came the shrewd reply.
In political campaigning where the winner is the one who has mobilized their base or choir most effectively, this sort of “get out the vote” tactic (GOTV) is key. That means that finding and energizing those who already support you or your cause will be the single largest determining factor of your success. You might see how we can adapt this empowering tool to issue-advocacy campaigns like promoting language learning in the U.S., especially using online media sources. A search for hashtags like #langchat #languagepolicy #leadwithlanguages #2bilit2quit on Twitter surfaces thousands of posts that show the latest research statistics on the world language teacher shortage, or highlight recent Seal of Biliteracy recipients from around the country.

On the other hand, awareness is only the first step in creating change, and can sometimes yield mixed results. In February ahead of our annual Lobby Day in Washington, DC, my organization organized a Twitter campaign to amply support of a House Bill called the “World Languages Advancement and Readiness Act.” People were asked to share the tweet, which contained a link to contact Congress via a letter writing tool. In total, each person had to click 4 or 5 times to share and send the letter. At first, we claimed success: the message reached 500,000 people via social media in the first 24 hours, and our hashtag was even trending at one point. A week later, I took a peek at how many people participated in the letter writing campaign: less than 1% took the next step to write their representatives (it was a pre-written letter, by the way).

Later when we analyzed the results, we found that most people who took the next step to send the letter were repeat advocates, people with whom we had established a relationship in the past. Advocacy moments like these can be frustrating because not all advocacy is equal in impact, nor are all advocacy results easily measurable. In one sense, the campaign succeeded in getting our strongest advocates involved. In another, we simply were not reaching beyond our territory. In moving from awareness to action, we must understand both the importance and the limitation of this tactic. At its best, GOTV tactics generate a feel-good buzz that is good for sustaining the attention of your direct or peripheral supporters. At its worst, GOTV turns into slacktivism: scroll, share, repeat. A 2016 research paper published in the Harvard Business Review1 looked at the effectiveness of a number of issue-advocacy campaigns. The authors landed on several elements, or best-practices, that bridged the gap between what campaigns said to what they achieved. I’ve highlighted the top three:

Simple and inspiring messaging: what you call your campaign matters. Center your campaign around one or two fascinating facts that provide context for the rest of your story.

Strong visual storytelling: studies show people read only about 20% of today’s web pages and are driven more by an image or short video than they are by a text-based, fully rational appeal. There are free design tools online (Canva, Typito) to help you create infographics to drive your story.
Focus on a big issue coupled with a request for a small personal action: while most campaigns are calling people’s attention to a big issue, they need to ask them to do something small as a next step and a sign of commitment.

Putting America’s Languages on the Map

In 2014, a bipartisan group of members of Congress asked the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) to undertake a new study of the nation’s language education needs. In response to this request, the Academy created the Commission on Language Learning. The Commission’s final report, “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Learning for the 21st Century2,” was released in 2017 and offers concrete recommendations to improve access to as many languages as possible, for people of every age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. Today, the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) is part of a national working group tasked with expanding awareness of the report’s five top-line recommendations:

  1. Increase World Language Teacher Supply
  2. Establish Public-Private Partnerships
  3. Support Heritage Language Learners
  4. Support Native American Languages
  5. Promote International Study

The goal of the working group is to bridge the gap between awareness and action. Our newest tool in development, takes a new approach by setting up an online resource that highlights best-practices and programs that are working to enact any one of the five recommendation of the report. The tool maps out actions already being taken and invites stakeholders in language education –from educators to policymakers– to see and hear success stories across the nation through a dynamic and searchable map. The idea is that by positively recognizing best-practices of programs already doing so much, we can both nudge would-be advocates into replicating these programs and raise awareness of the five recommendations to their networks. At the same time, mapping America’s Languages creates a tangible connection between educators to policymakers, help to closing the awareness-action gap just a little bit more.

Issues During the 116th Congress
In recent years, multiple reports have cited shortfalls of languages and culture skills in the U.S. military and intelligence community, finding that our nation’s language deficit could threaten our priorities and missions around the globe. Meanwhile, American business and their clientele are diversifying and globalizing their operations, requiring language skills to access global markets and serve a multilingual population. Research demonstrates that a second language is most easily acquired in one’s youth. Bilingual individuals outperform their monolingual peers in academic achievement, college matriculation rates, job placement, salary earnings, and age-related cognitive decline. Strategic investment in world language learning is therefore best leveraged through elementary and secondary school programs.

For these reasons, JNCL-NCLIS will reintroduce bipartisan legislation into the House and Senate called the World Language Advancement and Readiness Act, to establish high-quality world language programs in our nation’s elementary and secondary schools. The bill would allow the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Education, to authorize competitive grants to support local and state school districts that want to establish, improve, or expand innovative programs in world language learning for elementary and secondary school students.

Also at the start the 116th Congress, JNCL-NCLIS will launch the mapping tool during our annual Language Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill. This year’s theme, America’s Languages, will take center stage as we host advocates from all over the United States concerned about language learning. Language Advocacy Day is both a policy summit with topical sessions on the state of language advocacy in the US, as well as a Capitol Hill visit with 100+ of meetings with Legislative and Executive branches of government. You can learn more about how to participate in these campaigns and more at

JNCL-NCLIS Appropriations and Legislative Priorities for FY2019 and FY2020.

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) – Title VI: International and Foreign Language Education Office: NCLIS notes that the FY18 budget request decreases funding to the International and Foreign Language Education (IFLE) programs of the US Department of Education by almost $5m, from the current $72m to $67m. This cut, directed at the overseas programs of IFLE, will significantly damage the Fulbright-Hays programs. We note that, if enacted, this funding level will still remain more than $50m below the FY11 levels. NCLIS requests robust funding for these programs, at or above the FY17 levels, for the remainder of 2018 and for 2019.
Increase funding for Title IV, Part A of ESSA – Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEGs): NCLIS notes that this formula block grant was boosted from $400 million to $1.17 billion in FY19. NCLIS requests that the overall funding increased to the originally Congressionally-approved level of $1.65 billion.

Keep the Office of English Language Acquisition Intact, as established in Title III of ESSA: NCLIS welcomes the request of $800m in 2017 for Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which focuses on English language acquisition among ELLs. NCLIS requests the same level of funding, $800m, FY19. However, the Department of Education has proposed the reorganization of OELA and expects to reveal its plans in January 2019.
Defense Language and National Security Education Office (DLNSEO): NCLIS requests robust funding at or above the FY17 level, as well the as the statutory funding level for the National Security Education Program of $16m from the Intelligence budget. NCLIS supports the $1.625m proposed increase in the House draft bill for the Arabic Flagship program.
Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC): DLIFLC is the world’s largest language school, and NCLIS requests that Congress fund it at FY17 levels, at $301m, for the remainder of FY18 and requests robust funding at or above FY18 levels for FY19.

Correct the Inaccuracies in Prevailing Wages Rate Determinations for Translators and Interpreters: Translation and interpreting services are frequently procured by the federal government through the General Services Administration (GSA), which requires contractors to compensate employees no less than the wage rates and fringe benefits determined by the Department of Labor. However, current prevailing wage rates for translators and interpreters are inaccurate due to limitations in the survey methodology, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveys only regular W-2 employees, while the vast majority of the language workforce is composed of independent contractors. NCLIS recommends that the GAO examine the appropriateness of the OES methodology for industries where the majority of the workforce is composed of Independent Contractors, and the impact of potentially inaccurate prevailing wages on GSA and other government contracting activities in these industries.

Utilize the Trade-Off Model for Language Service Companies: When the government contracts for language services, it solicits and reviews bids using the Lowest Price Technically Available (LPTA) Model, which prioritizes the cost of service and aims to select the bid that offers the lowest price for performance while meeting the minimum technical standard required for the task. The Tradeoff model allows the contractor to prioritize non-cost factors like performance indicators, past performance, risk aversion, reliability, and innovation. NCLIS recommends that, in FY19, the Armed Services Committee should request the Department of Defense to report on the use of LPTA, Tradeoff, and other contracting approaches for the procurement of language services.


Trey Calvin is managing policy analyst at JNCL-NCLIS. The Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL), is a non-partisan 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to ensure that Americans have the opportunity to learn English and at least one other language. Their mission guides their approach to policy, which is why they contend that languages are essential to promote job growth in the 21st century, ensure a robust national security strategy, and to enact social justice practices in our ever-diversifying country.

The National Council on Languages and International Studies (NCLIS) directly lobbies the Legislative and Executive branches of government. JNCL-NCLIS was founded in 1974 in Washington, DC as the policy and lobbying arm for several other major state and national language organizations. It represents a broad coalition of over 150 national and state organizations promoting the language enterprise.

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