US lag in foreign language studies seen as drag on business, diplomacy

A small cadre of language and international specialists is waging a quiet war on what is being called the ''global illiteracy'' of the United States - particularly the inability of most Americans to speak any language other than English.

These specialists say that the lack of language skills among most Americans hinders international understanding, detracts from America's competitive edge in business overseas, and seriously affects US defense and intelligence efforts.

They are pushing for higher language requirements in schools across the country, and for greater, more diverse international and language studies related to all corners of the globe.

The issue is expected to resurface on Capitol Hill this week as congressional committeemen examine a Reagan administration proposal to discontinue the $26 million in federal funding for international study centers and language programs. The cut - tiny in terms of the overall $848.5 billion proposed budget - would eliminate the only significant block of federal funds, other than fellowships, currently budgeted specifically for foreign language and international studies. The proposed cut faces stiff opposition in Washington.

American incompetence in foreign languages has been well publicized and has sometimes become an international embarrassment.

* When a Soviet soldier went to the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, to defect in September 1980, no one could figure out why he had come to the embassy because no one spoke Russian.

* Prior to the hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Iran in 1978, only nine of the 60 foreign-service officers could speak even minimal Farsi.

* During his trip to Poland, former President Jimmy Carter expressed his hope to the Poles to ''learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future.'' The American translator mistakenly substituted the Polish word for ''lusts'' rather than ''desires.''

* There are said to be more teachers of English in the Soviet Union than there are students of Russian in the US.

* The Pepsi-Cola slogan ''Come alive'' almost appeared in an ad in the Chinese issue of the Reader's Digest as ''Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.''

* Sales of General Motors' Chevrolet Nova were lagging in Latin America until the name was changed to Caribe. ''No va,'' when spoken as two words in Spanish, means ''It doesn't go.''

Rep. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois literally wrote the book on how poorly prepared US citizens are to live in a multilingual world. The book, which cites, among others, the last four examples above, is called ''The Tongue-Tied American.'' Representative Simon has been a leading proponent in Congress of tougher school language requirements to help end the US citizen's lingual isolation from the rest of the world.

The story is told of how during the 1981 Ottawa economic summit when a roomful of heads of state began chatting in French, President Reagan had to ask Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau what they were talking about.

''There has always been a national attitude that everyone speaks English - and if they don't, they should,'' says Rose Hayden, executive director of the National Council on Foreign Language and International Studies.

''We are the only country in the world where you can graduate from high school without learning a second language,'' says David Edwards of the Washington-based Joint National Committee on Languages.

All of this is not new. Language specialists and some government officials have long been pushing for improvements.

The first substantive government push came in the 1950s. The Eisenhower administration, anxious to catch up with the Soviets after the launch of Sputnik , proposed a billion-dollar effort to enhance US education and research. As a part of the resulting National Defense Education Act, Congress appropriated $60 million for foreign language training.

Then came the 1960s and a call by students for relevancy in university curriculums. In many cases, languages were deemed not relevant, thus many schools reduced or dropped language requirements. The trend away from language study and toward lower standards continued into the 1970s.

In 1979, a presidential commission on foreign language study concluded: ''Americans' incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous, and it is becoming worse.'' Among the commission's findings:

* Only 15 percent of US high school students in 1979 studied a foreign language - down from 24 percent in 1965.

* Only 8 percent of US colleges and universities in 1979 required a foreign language for admission - down from 34 percent in 1966.

Today, according to experts, the downward trend has bottomed out and the country has begun a slow climb toward higher standards. Baltimore, Washington, New York, and other cities have reinstated school language requirements, and last year 70 colleges and universities brought back or instituted such requirements. Others, however, are reported to have cut back on language study while trimming budgets.

The Reagan administration proposed the 1984 cutoff of funds for the international study centers on the assumption that money could be raised from corporations, foundations, or the states themselves, which are responsible for their own education systems.

There are approximately 90 such centers scattered across the country. They are designated officially as national resource centers, though they receive most of their funds from nonfederal sources. The centers have historically provided a pool of language-qualified and internationally knowledgeable applicants for positions in the State Department, US embassies, the Pentagon, the CIA, and overseas businesses.

Congressional and other supporters of continued federal funding say that the potential benefits of the centers serve national interests and goals. They say local or state agencies are less likely to pursue these goals, particularly in times of shrinking budgets. And they add that the federal contribution adds a national legitimacy to the centers that helps attract the other nonfederal sources of funds.

Dr. Hayden questions how, with national defense a major priority, the Reagan administration can justify the budget cut. ''We would be concentrating purely on firepower and neglecting brainpower just when we most need it,'' she says.

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