For too long Americans were insulated by two oceans and spoiled by the good fortune of the rest of the world coming to us after World War II. As a result, Americans have never made foreign languages and world geography a priority. By-the-numbers diversity celebrations and affirmative action quotas don’t count in a global economy.
But there are some positive signs afoot:
*A survey by the Modern Language Association showed a 92.3 per cent increase in the number of students studying Arabic at American universities. Granted it’s less than 20,000, but Arabic is the second fastest growing language on U.S. campuses – after American Sign Language.
Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world, and America’s strategy in avoiding – or winning – a civilizational war is assuredly undermined by communication defaults.
*Most Florida state universities offer degrees in Spanish, French, and German – plus Russian and East European studies. But billions of dollars, for example, are annually at stake in Florida’s trade with Asia as well as Brazil.
To address that global reality, state university system Chancellor Mark Rosenberg and his staff are designing the Virtual Languages Institute, which would teach students online – and go beyond the more traditionally taught Romance languages. Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, as well as Portuguese, would be distance-learning priorities. It would also push for more study abroad. The VLI still needs the Board of Governors to sign off and the Legislature to sign the checks.
*A Hillsborough County school now offers middle school students a chance to take a class in Mandarin, the most widely spoken language in the world. Ferrell Middle Magnet School is a designated language exploration magnet school. It offers Spanish and Mandarin as its foreign language options – and its language lab affords students the opportunity to experience Japanese, Hindi and Portuguese.
Next year Williams, Greco and Jennings middle schools – underwritten by a three-year federal grant — will also teach Mandarin. The Hillsborough County School District hopes eventually to teach Mandarin at elementary and high schools.