Continental shift in priorities
Globalisation and the war on terror could, if President Bush has his way, be the driving forces behind far-reaching changes in the way languages are taught in schools.
An ambitious $114 million (pound;62m) blueprint outlined by the White House calls for language instruction to be more closely aligned to America's "national security and global competitiveness" interests.
The proposed "national security language initiative" would jump-start the teaching of Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other "critical-need languages". It calls for intensive new programmes of language study from nursery school to university level.
The scheme, awaiting approval from Congress, includes $24m for education authorities to forge ties with universities to build study programmes "from kindergarten to university", $24m in incentives for schools to offer the languages, $5m to train a 1,000-strong "language teachers corps" by 2010, and $3m to train existing staff.
Robert Slater, director of the national security education programme, the US defence department agency spearheading the initiative, said: "There is recognition that, in terms of national security, we have tremendous language deficiencies in our military, defence and diplomatic communities, and in the general workforce. That's the immediate imperative driving this.
But global competition will ultimately drive us more."
Fewer than 1 per cent of American secondary students currently study Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Russian or Urdu. Spanish is the most popular language in secondary schools, studied by 69 per cent of the 44 per cent of pupils who take languages, followed by French, chosen by 18 per cent of language students.
The proposals represent not only a departure in the type of languages being emphasised in US schools, but also a dramatic shake-up in how they are taught. Lessons are to be more formal and structured than the usual somewhat haphazard approach to Spanish and French.
Just 24 per cent of state primaries offer languages, of which 79 per cent focus on "introductory exposure", rather than achieving fluency targets, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Carl Falsgraf, director of the center for applied second language studies at Oregon university, and director of the Chinese K-16 flagship program, said US secondary schools typically offer two years of language instruction, which is enough for students to get by as tourists, but not enough to use in a professional arena.
A joint venture between his campus and Portland, Oregon's education authority is in the vanguard of the new approach being pushed by the White House (see story below).