The high cost of America's linguistic illiteracy

AMERICANS are impressed when Soviet commentator Vladimir Posner appears on the TV screen. And that other fellow, the second secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Washington. Wow! They speak English so effortlessly. Can our representatives in Moscow use the Russian language as well? Yes, some of them can, according to a recent State Department inventory of language capabilities of United States officials serving in embassies overseas.

At least 24 US diplomatic officers stationed in the Soviet Union speak a pretty good brand of Russian. Sixteen of them are fluent. That's not bad.

The report says some US officials perform equally well at other ``hard'' language posts. In Tokyo, for example, 16 senior officers have near-fluency or fluency in Japanese. In Peking, 18 embassy staffers speak very understandable Mandarin. And in posts in the Arab world, 27 US diplomatic officers speak and write fluent Arabic.

Yet this success has been achieved at excessive cost. Most of those representing the US in the world's diplomatic thicket never learn a foreign language well enough to use it effectively.

Foreign languages, especially the ``hard'' languages such as Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, and Japanese, do not roll smoothly off the American tongue. How can they? Americans have never taken foreign language study and teaching very seriously. They have long been convinced that English is a world language, enabling them to get by anywhere.

This xenophobic attitude toward the study of foreign languages in the schools has reduced the US government's ability to communicate directly with other nations. Candidates for the US Foreign Service are not required to demonstrate fluency in any foreign language. They are told they will be taught a specific language if one is needed. Americans do not seem ready to acknowledge that language capability and cultural perception are diplomacy's paramount tools.

We Americans are paying a high price for our intransigence. The State Department is forced to undertake vast in-service language teaching programs, carried out in an elaborate Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C., with branches and classes around the world that involve staffs of language training officers, tutors, travel time, reduced working time, and large quantities of expensive electronic devices.

Too much time is spent on remedial and brush-up courses and too little on the study of other cultures, political, and social systems. Superhuman effort is made by teachers and students to learn the needed language. Alas, the results are discouraging. The State Department's own appraisal of its inventory of fluent speakers is ``less than adequate.''

What's wrong is that Foreign Service officers are being force-fed languages they should have learned in school, long before entering upon their embassy duties; the time to learn is while they are young, receptive, and relatively free of responsibility.

How do other countries cope with this problem? In many different ways. Consider a few:

Candidates for the Soviet Foreign Service are identified in secondary school, where fluency in two languages is required for a diploma. After passing the Foreign Service exam, they enter the Moscow State Institute for International Relations for a five-year course that includes diplomacy, comparative cultures, and advanced study of languages learned in secondary school. Little or no in-service language teaching is necessary.

The Chinese depend on a two-level approach. The first and most productive concentrates on language study in secondary school, where, as in the Soviet system, diplomatic candidates are first identified. At the second level languages are taught on an in-service basis to linguistically-handicapped survivors of the 10-year-long period of the Cultural Revolution, a time when foreign languages were not taught. Nearly all resources and efforts are directed toward the youths of the first level, where results are said to be spectacular. Less and less is being spent on the older, less motivated survivors, where results are described as discouraging.

Chinese entering the foreign service are expected to speak one foreign language fluently. Often it is English, which for them is a ``hard'' language. They then proceed to a six-year course at the Peking Foreign Affairs College, which includes advanced language study, area studies, and updating in politics and economics.

The Japanese require skill in one language, usually French or English, as a prerequisite to taking the Foreign Service exam. Officers chosen for service where ``hard'' languages are spoken are sent abroad for study.

The French, long experienced in the diplomat's skills, have the most successful system. It also happens to be the most economical. Candidates are required to be fluent in two languages before taking the exam for entry into the Foreign Service. How they acquire their fluency is the candidate's own business. Offering in-service or remedial language training to a member of the French diplomatic service would be viewed as depreciatory.

On the world's diplomatic stage, the US alone admits candidates into its Foreign Service without language requirements. It is the only diplomatic service that spends more money training slow than fast learners.

This practice will not and cannot change until the US educational system changes. The US Foreign Service experience has painfully demonstrated that learning foreign languages in adult life is too costly in human and fiscal resources to be continued over the long term.

Stephen N. Sestanovich is a veteran US diplomat who writes and speaks on intercultural relationships.

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