Wanted: Teachers fluent in a second language

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.

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.

And even more curious that in many school districts with a predominantly non-English speaking population, the indigenous language has been so scorned that it is not even offered as a discipline in the school. That is, in many Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas school districts Spanish is not offered as a course of study either to those who speak a kind of "poor" Spanish and hence need "good" Spanish, or for those English-speaking children who cripple their business and communications opportunities by not learning the predominant language for the majority of the local population.

For their part, many American businesses do not concern themselves with teaching a second or third language to employees working overseas. Instead they make use of those with multilingual skills already in the nation with which they are doing business. But would they use a member of their own corporation staff in the US for an assignment if he or she were, in fact, fluent in the language needed?

The answer is a guarded yes. Guarded because something more than language is needed, and it's that "something more" which was in Dr. Bowker's conversation. A need for the American to know the life and culture and history and politics and business of that nation as well.

A few schools make this connection; a few colleges and universities feel this international dimension is so important that every student must prove proficiency not only in a second language, but devote considerable time to an understanding of another culture in as many facets as possible.

I'm going to make a radical suggestion, and if carried out it will strengthen what is already perceived (but not mandated) on many college campuses. I suggest that every school system in the US make as its own individual requirement for hiring that no teacher be considered who is not fluent in a second language and who has not taken at least two courses in international studies.

This is an almost perfect time to make such a condition for hiring. With very few exceptions, most school districts are hiring only a handful of teachers. And they have the largest pool of certificated personnel to draw from than ever before in the history of US schooling.

This means it's a buyer's market. Each school district can make its own hiring rules. It can begin with this year's selections to require a second language.

And this means that those fully qualified now, except for meeting this language and international studies dimension, have sufficient time for intensive study of a second language, and a spring and summer term in which to take two or more courses in international affairs.

Perhaps teacher militancy and unionization make it nearly impossible to require that all now employed as teachers and administrators in every US school district be fluent in a second language. Yet, what about making this condition of continued employment to be fulfilled within, say, the next five years?

And to sweeten the assignment, every school district might offer to pay the cost of courses in language training and international studies. By footing the bill, and giving a generous time span for completion, school districts might get around union objections.

Ask your local school board why they don't just do this -- why they don't require, at the very least, a second language.

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