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Column: Call To Improve Foreign Language Study Funding

This story was written by Julie Steinberg , Daily Pennsylvanian

"Kevin is an American. He is in Moscow now. Repeat after me."

As the class joyfully chorused back to Ludmila Vladimirovna, our Elementary Russian professor, I couldn't help but contrast the experience to my time in the class Spanish 140 freshman year.

That class, which followed Alessandro and Pablo on their journey through el siglo de oro, had 25 students in it. My current Russian class, which examines Kevin's massive crush on Tanya in the Putin era, has eight.

It's not exactly shocking to note that intermediate Spanish and French classes are overrun with freshmen intent on fulfilling Penn's language requirement. After four years of a language in high school with an AP exam or two thrown in, it makes sense to complete those courses and achieve a relative degree of proficiency.

But while Spanish and French are invaluable languages in an increasingly globalized world, the government's National Security Language Initiative, passed in 2006, makes a good case for imbibing Russian, Hindi, Chinese and Arabic as well.

Under the Bush administration's plan, millions of dollars have been allocated to funding new programs that emphasize learning languages deemed critical to national security.

Have students caught the Azeri fever and signed up in droves? According to Dan Davidson, the president and co-founder of American Councils for International Education, out of 17 million current university students, only 1.2 million are studying a language. Of those students, the number studying Russian and Arabic has increased slightly or leveled off. Similarly, since 2006, the number of students at Penn taking Russian has remained stable, at about 28 students in first-year Russian per fall semester.

Although these numbers are encouraging, there are still about seven times the amount of Spanish courses as Russian ones.

Arabic, on the other hand, has seemed to flourish at Penn. Roger Allen, chairman of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, said that there are 100 students in first-year Arabic, a major increase since 2001.

"I think it's incredibly important to learn Arabic, given the current state of international security," College senior Alison Nadle said. Nadle, an International Relations and Modern Middle East Studies major, has applied for a job with several government agencies that are notorious for their lack of Arabic speakers.

While studying these languages at a university provides an important foundation for future study, learning and living in-country can have innumerable benefits for those intent on mastering the dialect.

"You're learning every minute you're awake," said History professor Benjamin Nathans, who studied abroad at Leningrad State University in the 1980s. "It's really important for Americans, who tend to know a lot less about other people than they know about us, to have experiences abroad."

And some of these programs oblige. The State Department-run Fulbright scholarship and the Critical Languages Scholarship program offer a limited number of awards to students who want to study abroad - be it in Tashkent, Uzbekistan or Suzhou, China.

The problem is many of the programs are contingent upon previous knowledge of the language. While I'm desperate to get to Russia, I can only win an award if I have a working knowledge of Russian equal to two years' college instruction. I have just learned how to say,"Misha, you stole my vodka" - I doubt the government will be inclined to give me money.

It's easy to understand. After all, giving large grants is a hefty gamble on students who may become disillusioned after trying to master 3,000 Chinese characters. But if the government is serious about attracting more students to agencies that desperately need them, it may not hurt to hand out funds to those without prior instruction.

Even after Bush leaves office, the U.S. will remain embroiled in conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Without a federal workforce versed in those languages, our presence there will become more and more fruitless. The only way to ensure American integration into a global realm is to make sure students - who will become our civil servants -- can literally understand the United Nations manuals.

Kevin understands the need to ingratiate with Tanya - we should too, if the government and educational system better facilitate the process.

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