In the offices of the
National Foreign Language Center,
director David Maxwell and his staff quietly go about an
important international mission that will affect our educational
system, diplomacy and international trade.
"The state of language learning in this country is in crisis," he says. "Our mission is to make language an intelligent part of public discourse."
NFLC is the only think tank in the United States devoted to the study of language and the only institution with fellowships dedicated to language research.
In 1986 four private foundations--underwritten by Exxon, Ford, Mellon and Pugh--funded the center and Johns Hopkins agreed to house it at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. The work of the center--brain child of its first director Richard Lambert--involves assessing national language needs and capacities, influencing government policies on language and integrating the various sectors of society concerned with language training--education, government, heritage communities (Americans whose first language is not English) and the private sector.
"We are a small organization with a very large mission," says Catherine Ingold, one of NFLC's two deputy directors.
"In a sense we exist because Americans don't think language is important enough," Maxwell says.
The United States, he says, is the only industrialized nation that leaves language training to secondary educational institutions. NFLC's two-pronged approach is to influence policy making at the government level and at the classroom level.
"We are the national voice for language study," Maxwell says.
Word that Sen. Paul Simon has agreed to chair the NFLC advisory board is encouraging news that Maxwell hopes will help establish the NFLC as that national voice and help it influence policy from the top down.
One of the most important programs the NFLC conducts is the evaluation of Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which covers language and area studies. The center's other deputy director, Russian language specialist Richard Brecht, is in charge of assessing Title VI programs for NFLC.
"Everything indicates that there are [serious] language and communications needs in this country," he says. With shrinking budgets on campuses and in government, Brecht asks, how can we keep up with teaching commonly taught languages, much less begin to teach languages such as Ukrainian or Cambodian? "We are faced with problems of access and equity."
Among the NFLC's projects is the Language Mission Project funded by the Luce Foundation to develop cohesive strategies for language training at the college level. Another project--the Heritage Language Education Initiatives--develops professional programs for teachers and students in heritage language schools at the primary education level. NFLC also runs the IAS/Mellon Fellows program, the only fellows program dedicated to language research in this country. The center also publishes papers and monographs, conducts conferences and colloquia on subjects related to foreign language study and maintains a Web site at www.cais.net/nflc/.
It is in the area of new technologies that the NFLC will undertake its most ambitious project. LangNet, an Internet-based language learning system, will be accessible to anyone with Internet access, and it will be able to teach almost any language with its innovative modular approach called Customized Language Learning. CLL allows each student to import a menu of learning modules to design individualized learning environments. It will be cost effective and help solve the problems of equity and access.
"CLL is a model for educational reform in higher education. It addresses the needs of a larger variety of students including non-traditional students. Language is just a model, and it could be adapted for other subjects. CLL is particularly useful for non-traditional students and those without [geographical] access to the traditional classroom setting."
Brecht says language policy goes beyond government and the classroom; it has a day-to-day impact as well. He points out that communications giant AT&T provides online telephone translation for 140 languages to "911" operators, hospitals and courts around the United States. In the past, he says, Americans have relied on "gatekeepers"--non-Americans who speak English--to provide language expertise.
If the NFLC only had one message to America, it would be that we cannot rely on others to communicate for us, Maxwell says.
"America cannot afford to fall behind other nations in the important field of communication," says Brecht. "We have to make a difference in how Americans deal with the rest of the world and with each other."
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