Critical languages are vital for internationalisation

The United States needs to encourage more students to take up critical languages. This could benefit individual students, but could also help the US develop a more culturally sensitive and globally minded populace.

Study abroad in the United States is promoted to students as a way to obtain international experience, enhance career prospects and grow in the workplace. Especially during these short-term and long-term opportunities, learning a second language is encouraged as a way to become competitive in the global workforce.

Initiatives by the US Department of State and Department of Defense provide funding for undergraduate and graduate student critical language study, showing that language learning is also a strategic policy area.

In the 2013-14 academic year, Open Doors data from the Institute of International Education shows that more than half of US students who studied abroad did so in Europe or other English-speaking countries. In destinations with critical languages as the official languages, such as the Middle East and North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of students studying at these destinations is much lower and has decreased from the 2012-13 academic year.

In casually mentioning this recent trend to classmates and colleagues, a number have paused to ask, “What are critical languages?” A reminder is in order, in addition to a call for action to further develop critical language study in the US.

Since the recent election has raised concerns regarding the future of internationalisation in the US, this article proposes avenues for research in the realm of critical language study and education abroad.

What are critical languages and why do we need them?

In an increasingly interconnected world, the desire to develop a multicultural, globally competent populace is growing among educators and policy-makers. The events of September 11, 2001, highlighted the post-Cold War era need to enhance global competencies in the US in order to remain competitive economically and politically.

At this time, it was also recognised that there was a severe shortage of speakers of languages identified as critical to national security: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian, as well as Indic, Persian, Turkic language families and many more.

The US Department of Defense presented at the National Language Conference in 2005, advocating for a national strategy to promote critical language learning. The White Paper cites national security demands, economic competitiveness and human capital development as the main reasons for the urgency in a national strategy.

In 2006, the National Security Language Initiative classified the languages considered critical and a strategy was created to increase the number of US citizens learning, speaking and teaching these languages.

In action, these policies have led to programming intended to make study of critical languages both domestically and internationally more accessible for secondary and tertiary students.

Programming ranges from short-term intensive study abroad opportunities (National Security Language Initiative for Youth and the Critical Language Scholarship), to longer-term domestic and/or overseas language study coupled with regional academic study (the Language Flagship, Boren Awards, and YES Abroad). All of the aforementioned opportunities are fully or partially funded.

Critical languages in the US are needed not only for the cited reasons of national security and economic competitiveness. On a human level, having some knowledge of another language allows students to connect with a differing world view, over time building a public diplomacy bridge between other cultures. Languages that fall into the critical language cohort are spoken in countries and by peoples that US students and professionals need to connect with most urgently.

What is the impact of these critical language study initiatives, if any? As the aforementioned opportunities intend to make critical language study more affordable and accessible, is this heightened visibility increasing the number of young speakers of critical languages in the US?

It is necessary to understand the environment of critical language study and the profile of critical language students in order to understand this phenomenon and entice more students to take the plunge to learn these languages.

Challenges within the critical language study environment

While the incentives for and benefits to studying a critical language may seem clear, there are a number of real and perceived hindrances that perpetuate a low supply of speakers.

According to Language Testing International, there is a significant difference in the contact hours needed to become proficient in a particular language.

For languages like French, Spanish and Italian, reaching a basic conversational proficiency level takes eight weeks or 240 hours of study. Considered 'Group III' and 'Group IV' languages, Arabic, Russian, Turkish and Japanese take double the time (16 weeks or 480 hours) to reach the same level of basic conversational proficiency.

To reach a 'superior command' of Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Korean, it is estimated that 2,400 to 2,760 hours of investment must go into study. The long-term commitment needed to attain and maintain high levels of proficiency may seem too daunting for some students to begin study.

Additionally, critical language instruction is not offered at many of the United States’ nearly 5,000 institutions of higher education. Using Arabic as an example, a comprehensive 2013 survey by the Modern Language Association showed that only 548 out of 2,616 US universities surveyed teach Modern Standard Arabic. It is reasonable to assume that students interested in taking on a critical language may not have access to it.

Even if a critical language is offered, courses often reach only an intermediate level and a student is not able to continue studying the language on campus throughout his or her academic career. Related to this course availability issue are the cost-cutting measures that many universities are facing. Critical language offerings often bear the brunt of these cost-cutting measures.

Other barriers to critical language study may include lack of funding for ongoing study and language maintenance and the structure of specialised degrees, such as nursing and engineering, not allowing room for language electives. This outline is by no means exhaustive of the challenges to learning a critical language in the US.

A presentation at an Association of International Education Administrators conference in 2014 cited another unsettling challenge. Using data from the Modern Language Association, language enrolment in US institutions of higher education has not grown since 2006 and overall enrolment in language study is much lower than it was five decades ago.

Who are critical language students?

While the dedicated cohort of critical language students stays the same size, it is necessary to ask: Who are these students? What are their backgrounds and what motivates them to take the leap in studying a language with the end goal of proficiency being a potential long-term commitment? Existing research touches on motivational aspects of language students.

Further research must be done on critical language study. Areas for scholars and practitioners in the realm of international higher education and language instruction to explore include, but are not limited to:
  • • The current political climate – In addition to the controversial issues in this election season, international media topics certainly affect potential young language learners. Growing tension with Russia, the need for problem solving of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, and recent negotiations with Iran are all very much in the public eye. Interestingly, what each of these countries have in common is that the official language is one considered critical and less commonly taught in the United States. Might contemporary diplomatic issues influence whether a student takes up critical language learning?

  • • Complete beginners – A growing body of literature within international higher education focuses on the personality and motivational backgrounds of students who partake in international experiences. Similarly, it would be useful to explore whether innate character traits tie into likelihood of critical language study. For those who have no background in a critical language, or even those with zero language learning experience in general, what could motivate these students to take the plunge?

  • • Institutional location – Students throughout the United States face a number of trade-offs when selecting their institution. Size, private vs public, funding, academic opportunities and location are just some considerations. Colleges and universities located outside urban areas may not be in close proximity to professional development opportunities, such as internships or volunteer placements. Students attending these institutions may see learning a critical language, and later participating in a study abroad programme in a non-traditional destination, as a ‘leg up’ in their professional development. Are students from certain institutions more likely to partake in critical language study on- or off-campus during their academic career?

  • • Internationalisation initiatives – In an era where universities benchmark for internationalisation on campus and compete in global rankings, foreign (and critical) language study seems to be an overlooked gateway for further internationalisation. If educators can get students interested in learning a new language, it stands to follow that interest in the language’s culture(s) may be piqued next. By enhancing opportunities for and enticing students to learn to communicate with the ever increasing international student population in their own tongue, other international campus objectives could be met.
While any change in administration after an election brings uncertainty, study abroad and language learning professionals working collaboratively and creatively can enhance international education initiatives. Further study, in the aforementioned topics and others, allows educators and study-abroad professionals to reach students who might not at first consider critical language study.

The benefit of increasing the number of critical language students in the US is twofold. Not only does the student as an individual attain an in-demand skillset, but the United States stands to develop a more culturally sensitive and globally minded populace.

Lauren Kardos is a masters candidate in international education at the George Washington University, USA. She is a program officer for the Institute of International Education, and previous to that role worked at a study abroad organisation focusing on the Middle East and North Africa region.