Ayear from now, French and Spanish may not be the only common foreign language options for Michigan public school students. The state is anticipating a federal grant for $700,000 per year for up to 16 years to teach Arabic in public schools and colleges as a part of the Defense Department’s National Security Education Program. This grant is part of a larger initiative to increase the number of Americans who speak languages identified as “strategic”: Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Farsi. But these languages are not merely useful to future CIA operatives. With globalization affecting nearly every aspect of life, students versed in foreign languages have an edge in whatever career they pursue. Increasing the variety of languages offered at schools by adding widely spoken languages such as Hindi will not only inspire broader interests in young students, but also prepare students for a world bigger than America and Western Europe. This initial grant is a productive use of education dollars that will hopefully be supplemented by adequate long-term state and federal support.
The grant will be a great benefit to the state, especially considering that the state Legislature just approved stricter graduation requirements for high school students that include a two-year language obligation. This funding will allow schools to meet the increasing demand for language classes by offering an uncommon language alternative that many students, especially in light of our nation’s international commitments, will find interesting. Already, wealthy districts have recognized the growing importance of Asian languages; some have offered Japanese and Mandarin Chinese for years. With the federal government now willing to back Arabic instruction because of strategic concerns, there is hope that it will back other strategic languages with additional funds. The shift away from teaching exclusively Western European languages in districts with abundant cash is welcome; governments should ensure all students, regardless of income, have access to such a curriculum. If American students are to remain competitive globally, schools must abandon antiquated Eurocentric language instruction. Right now, a $700,000 grant is capable of ensuring a strong program, although it will be limited in size. If the state can allocate and schools and utilize this money effectively, however, this small grant could mark the start of an important education initiative.
It could also be a platform from which shrinking public districts could stage a rebound. If public districts – especially those suffering under competition from private and charter schools – are able to offer superior language programs, they may have a shot at retaining and attracting students currently flocking to private schools.
In addition to adopting its new curriculum standards, the state must also ensure public schools have the resources to meet these standards. This federal language grant will not only help the state adequately support districts struggling to meet the new language mandate, but also help prepare students struggling to cope compete in the globalizing world.