Speaking the world's tongues

AMERICANS have long assumed that a knowledge of English is enough to resolve any problem of real importance in the world. Periodic prods, from foreign travel to the stepped-up foreign language requirements in academia in the '60s, have done little to shake that confidence. But a new mix of job-related pressures on students to develop a more informed international outlook and sharpen their language skills could make a significant difference.

American businesses, concerned about the nation's trade deficit and growing overseas competition, are solidly behind the new push. Many firms which used to hire overseas nationals to bridge language gaps now see strong advantages in having US employees aboard who understand both the language and the culture.

State governments have also taken the lead in restoring to college and public school systems many of the foreign language requirements dropped in the `70s. A number of sobering national reports, underscoring US deficiencies in international studies, have also played a role.

Results of the new push are widespread. At Tufts University, international relations is currently the most popular undergraduate major. Students at the University of Northern Kentucky, in part because of a new Japanese auto plant coming into the state, may take courses in Japanese. Michigan State University, in a move related to its roots as a land grant college and work with developing countries, offers students a choice among 23 African languages. At Boston University students may take such core curriculum courses as political science and philosophy in foreign languages.

One of the most interesting offshoots is a program offering courses in business skills, area studies, and foreign languages. The Wharton School's Joseph Lauder Institute, combining masters degrees in business management and area studies, is considered a national model. Also, several colleges offer special courses in ``business'' French, German, or Spanish.

Make no mistake. Americans have barely begun to make the effort most of their European and Asian counterparts have routinely exerted for years.

A recent US State Department survey rated the linguistic capabilities of its employees abroad as less than adequate. The US, while it offers intensive training later, requires no language proficiency of new foreign service candidates. Most nations have much more stringent language requirements for entry into their diplomatic corps.

By latest count, one million or about one in twelve US college students are enrolled in language courses of some kind; this is a return only to the peak enrollments of the late '60s.

The number enrolled in anything other than standard French, Spanish, and German courses is small. Fewer than 85,000 college students are taking Japanese, Chinese, or Russian. But the pace of growth is notable. The number of Americans studying Japanese during the last three years is up 45 percent. Those studying Chinese went up by 28 percent.

The debate over how best to teach languages continues. Many say skills proficiency is more important than accumulated ``seat time.'' Others say only a thorough grounding in the culture and literature of a language can bring genuine mastery. A new National Endowment for the Humanities study says language teaching tends, unwisely, to emphasize skills over content.

Many Americans who have bothered to learn foreign languages insist they rarely have a chance to use them unless they travel. That situation is changing fast as the ``global village'' expands and as American business begins to think of markets in broader terms.

It is time to get ready.

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