The tiny voices speak in many tongues. By the dozen they come, day after day. Chinese, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Filipino, Laotian, Cambodian, and Arab children. They are guided through three rooms in the back of the Board of Education building in San Francisco's financial district.
The rooms form what is known as the Intake Center, which has processed 17,000 immigrant and refugee children since 1981. The multilingual staff at the center is capable of communicating in nearly a dozen languages. The purpose of the center is to channel the flood of immigrant children - many of whom speak little English - into bilingual and other classrooms where they have a chance of competing with English-speaking peers.
The wave of immigrants reaching San Franciso Bay and American shores in the last decade - many of them from Southeast Asia - combined with increasing American dependence on a global economy, points up the divergent yet related challenges facing public and private schools in the US: A need to teach English as a second language in order to bring immigrants into the economic mainstream, and a need to teach foreign language as a means of securing America's stake in the world economy.
On the one hand, immigrants often stridently demand that their children learn English as a prerequisite to cashing in on the American dream. And that demand is matched by society as a whole, which tends to see unskilled workers who speak little English as potential burdens on social services.
On the other hand, the new wave of multiethnic immigration and the shunning of native languages that often accompanies adoption of a new homeland comes at a time when America is in need of foreign-language experts.
In effect, and ironically, this means a need for successful bilingual programs on the front end of the educational pipeline is being mirrored on the back end of the pipeline by a complimentary need for college graduates with foreign-language expertise.
Many educators and government officials believe a lack of foreign-language proficiency is retarding America's ability to compete on an equal footing in international business and diplomacy. ''The tongue-tied American is more than just a mildly amusing stereotype,'' says Rep. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, a leading advocate of increased foreign-language training. ''He's a danger to several key national interests. He unbalances our overseas trade accounts and undermines our national security.''
A 1979 presidential commission on foreign-language studies, that is still held out as indicative of the status of langauge training today, found that ''Americans' scandalous incompetence in foreign languages explains our dangerously inadequate understanding of world affairs.''
In the face of all the dire warnings, and perhaps because of them, the downward trend in foreign-language enrollment on college campuses and in secondary schools is showing signs of abating.
An even more emotional issue than foreign language is bilingualism. In the public consciousness, bilingualism is often synonymous with language training in both Spanish and English. Administrators in cities like Houston wish it were that easy. Houston's innovative bilingual program is successfully addressing the needs of children who speak over 60 different languages (see story Page B2). Whether Houston's favorable results are the rule or the exception in school districts across the country is a matter of national debate.
An ironic backdrop to the whole debate over foreign languages is the recent call for making old-fashioned English the cornerstone of education once again. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recently put forth a proposal that would make mastery of both spoken and written English - along with math and science - one of the primary goals of education.
''Mastery of English is the first and most essential goal of education,'' said Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation, when the plan was unveiled. ''The advent of the information age raises (it) to new levels of urgency.''
The challenge of successful language instruction - bilingualism, foreign languages, English - can only intensify as the US experiences continued high legal and illegal immigration, as the melting pot theory gives way to a renewed sense of cultural identity, and as public schools try to sort out priorities in an age when basic skills need to share the driver's seat with technology's urgent demands.