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Wanted: Teachers fluent in a second language

By Cynthia ParsonsEducation editor of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 1980

Berkeley, Calif.

Albert H. Bowker is chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, and is, this year, winding up a very distinguished career in education. It includes the chancellorship of City University of New York and a 16-year professorship at Stanford University.

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We were talking about the need for balance in undergraduate schooling, but I couldn't resist asking Dr. Bowker what he thought would be some of the changes in American thought and education in the decade to come.

Perhaps it was the recent takeover of the United States Embassy in Tehran by Iranian "students" which influenced his answer, but I think not. I think even without that incident, just a few days old when we spoke, he would have made the same comment.

He said that for the first time in US history the country as a whole is concerned about foreign policy -- not leaving decisions and discussion to a few specialists, but actually wanting to be part of the decision process.

Inflation and demographic shifts he cited too as concerns which would radically change our present ways of living, and hence educating.

But it's the notion of a whole nation concerned with foreign affairs which is the subject of this column. Dr. Bowker's and my discussion took place on Nov. 13, and on Nov. 7 the President's Commission on Foreign Languages and International Studies presented its report.

The commission minced no words: It stated that our lack of training in foreign languages (only 15 percent of secondary school students) puts us at such a disadvantage in a multilingual world that it actually threatens our own national security and adversely affects our economy.

The commission was equally concerned about the teaching of international affairs, noting that less than 5 percent of those trained to teach in US public schools had either a knowledge of a second language or a background in international studies.

Dr. Bowker stressed the need for foreign-policy decisions to come from a much more educated public -- a public with broad knowledge of other cultures and religions as well as political and economic systems.

And while the commission made some 130 recommendations, it came down particularly hard on the need for those who plan to be part of the business community to know other languages and other cultures.

The commission cited, for example, the fact that there are some 10,000 fluent- in-English Japanese businessmen on assignment in the US compared with less than 1,000 fluent-in-Japanese American counterparts working in Japan.

It has been most curious, this pull back from fluency in a second language in US schools, particularly since so many corporations work in international markets. Curious, too, that fewer and fewer schools have required language training, even though more and more graduates go on to travel and study abroad.