The Link Between Foreign Languages and U.S. National Security

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Michael Nugent

Director, Defense Language and National Security Education Office, U.S. Department of Defense

Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, NAFSA: Association of International Educators; Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Martha "Marty" Abbott

Executive Director, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages; Executive Director, Lead With Languages

Sanford J. Ungar

Director, Free Speech Project, Georgetown University

Experts discuss foreign language learning in the U.S. education system as well as learning methods that go beyond the classroom walls, and the value of foreign language learning to U.S. national security.

UNGAR: Good afternoon. Welcome to our Council meeting titled “The Link Between Foreign Languages and U.S. National Security.”

I’m Sanford Ungar, director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, and I’ll be our presider today.

I want to just ever-so-briefly introduce our panelists. You have their introductions, but Marty Abbott is the executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and director of the Lead With Languages public awareness campaign.

And if there’s anyone in America who’s under pressure to change the situation with languages, I suspect that’s you, Marty.

ABBOTT: Yes, absolutely.

UNGAR: Esther Brimmer in the middle is the brand-new executive director and chief executive officer of NAFSA, the Association of International Educators.

Just fresh from your first national conference, I think, right?

BRIMMER: That’s right.

UNGAR: And she has a very distinguished career, too long to say right here, but you can read about it.

Michael Nugent is another person who has a lot of responsibility for making sure that languages become more successfully implanted in the minds and lives of Americans. He’s director of the, I take a breath before saying it, Defense Language and National Security Education Office at the Department of Defense, and has a very significant role with regard to this effort.

I think we should begin by talking about, getting very direct about how the United States lags behind the rest of the world in language acquisition and use.

And, Marty, maybe you’re the best person to address that.

ABBOTT: Sure. I think that largely there’s an interest on the part of the general public in learning other languages, but it’s our national mentality that really prevents us from opening up to the experience, not to mention the fact that there’s a perception that the rest of the world speaks English.

UNGAR: And that this is increasing. I think there is a widespread perception, well, I was going to learn a language, but everybody is learning English, so I don’t have to bother.

ABBOTT: What we do know, though, is that about 75 percent of the world does not speak English. And if they do speak it, they don’t speak it at a very high level of proficiency. So we also know that a lot of business doesn’t get done at the board table, at the business table, it gets done through building relationships. And I think that’s another reason why our country needs to really expand its language capabilities.

UNGAR: So the numbers are, I think I read, that more than 65 million American residents, not necessarily citizens, but residents speak a second language home that is a language other than English, which sounds like a lot, but it’s only 20.7 percent of the population, which dwarfs the percentage of students who study abroad, college students who study abroad. But it’s still a rather small figure for our country that aspires to world leadership.

ABBOTT: It is. And what we know from the Census data is that by the third generation, that home language is virtually lost. So one of the important aspects that we need to do as a country is help the heritage speakers, the heritage learners understand and their parents understand that that’s a real asset. And they need to maintain that language and continue to build it. So that’s—

UNGAR: Probably many people in the room know what you mean by heritage speakers, but maybe you should just tell them.

ABBOTT: I think the very lose definition is that it’s a language other than English spoken at home. Generally, that’s the broad definition of that term in the way we use it.

UNGAR: And so the idea is to try to catch those people and improve their skills, is that what you say?

ABBOTT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

UNGAR: Among other goals.

ABBOTT: Right. Well, as they’re learning English, I think many people don’t understand that immigrants and refugees who come to this country are motivated to learn English and they are learning English. So that’s not really the issue, the issue is that they have another important asset that we’re not helping them take advantage of.

UNGAR: Esther, you in your various positions in the government, and I think now your job as the head of NAFSA you’ve come to understand something about the importance of languages in American foreign policy. Do you want to address that for a moment?

BRIMMER: Be happy to. First, good afternoon, thank you to the Council for convening us to talk about this topic, which I think is of interest on many different levels.

And I’d say now, of course, at NAFSA, we very much see the importance of investing in global competencies and making sure we have the capacities to engage internationally. And I certainly saw that in my previous life at the State Department when I was assistant secretary for international organizations.

And so, for example, we were regularly worrying about U.S. policy on issues at the Security Council, just to give an example. Well, at the Security Council, the issues that come up are usually crises in places that are ungoverned spaces. These are not the, you know, places that are capitals where people speak English or speak even French or global languages. So we needed to have in-depth understanding of the ideas in circulation that were affecting foreign policy and affecting the issues at the table of the Security Council. And they could be at any region of the world at very short notice.

Similarly, we were dealing with a humanitarian crisis, a human rights crisis. These are, again, usually in places when you have complex issues where the language of discussion, again, is not a global language. And the United States needs to be able to understand in-depth what’s going on in these areas of crisis in order to address them from a foreign policy point of view.

UNGAR: Right. Is it true, as I’ve heard, that when someone applies to join the Foreign Service, you need not speak any foreign language to be accepted in the Foreign Service?

BRIMMER: I won’t speak for now, I’ve been out a few years, but I suspect that that may be the case.

UNGAR: That seems like—

BRIMMER: Of course, we, of course, encourage, you know, multiple languages.

UNGAR: —seems like a symbolic fact.

BRIMMER: And I’ll say for those, you know, in my career when I was teaching, I would say to students, better if you do learn your language in graduate school and then apply, it’s always an asset.

UNGAR: Right. So better to have a language before you—

BRIMMER: Before you go in, you know. You do not have to, but it’s good because it’s an investment, and it’s an investment that takes time.

UNGAR: Michael, picking up on something that Esther said, she implied that there are many foreign policy crises, moments when it would be very helpful if the United States is trying to understand what’s going on if there were people on the ground with local language skills.

I suppose it’s intuitive to most people, but maybe you could just state the official case for why languages are important in national defense?

NUGENT: Well, let me just start from the fact that our organization, that is DLNSEO, it’s sounds like an Italian restaurant—(laughter)—

UNGAR: It does.

NUGENT: —but at any rate, our office actually has two broader missions. It has the DOD-wide oversight of all things language and culture, and culture is important as well in the language mission. And we define our needs very, very clearly and our requirements very clearly through, as we discussed earlier, the Interagency Language Roundtable scale of what people should be learning to. In other words, we have proficiency testing, and most other government agencies do that as well. The State Department uses the same scale we do. So that’s the one side of my house.

The other side of my house, we’re very lucky to have the National Security Education Program which has a presidentially appointed board, of which two members of my board are right here by chance on this panel. And we also see one of our board members out there from the agencies, because we have Cabinet-level board members as well.

This is very important because our organization not only looks at the needs for DOD, it looks at the needs for the entire federal service, and that’s our mandate through statute from the David L. Boren National Security Education Act of 1991. So we are consistently using the board and other methods, looking at what our needs are.

By statute, we are training in areas that are not normally visited by U.S. undergraduate students. So Western Europe is off because a lot of folks go there, so we’ve picked places that are, in some cases, off the beaten path, so to speak, for the study abroad folks that our colleagues here work with more often because there’s just larger mass, but we’ve now been building over the many years capabilities and capacities in these regions. Now, why is that important for—back to your question. Well, because as Esther just pointed out, when we’re engaging, regardless of mission, whether it’s a natural disaster in Haiti, or any kind of thing, DOD tends to be the first on the ground with equipment and other things.

By having those language capabilities and having regional experts in those areas trained in advance to work those regions, we do much better in meeting mission, but we also do much better in developing partnerships.

So we do have a corps or something called foreign area officers, which are about 2,500 folks that are trained at the more senior levels of military officers, who actually have language skills and regional expertise. And they then work worldwide. So it’s very, very important that our, that is the U.S. presence when we’re working out there, whether it’s DOD or State or any of the other agencies, understand the culture and the region in which they’re working. That’s the only way you can really build good partnerships.

UNGAR: Let me ask a question. I don’t mean it to be impolite, but is that a path to promotion in the military, to master language skills?

NUGENT: It has not been traditionally a path to promotion.

UNGAR: So that isn’t important.

NUGENT: Right. Now, in the career field for foreign area officer, it would be considered as one for—but that said—

UNGAR: But if you want to become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the list of things you have to do and boxes you have to check does not include studying languages.

NUGENT: Yet. Let me answer that question slightly differently.


NUGENT: We started a program called Project Global Officer, which is working with 24 universities to create capabilities in the undergraduate study of midshipmen and cadets who were going to be future officers. When we first started this program, there was very little interest on the part of the senior folks. They were, like, yeah, they have too much to do. It is now one of the most popular programs. And when you talk to the cadets and midshipmen who are heading into becoming future officers, they say I don’t really care if I actually go into a language-specific mission, I want to know the regions, and I want to know the languages. We are a global force.

So I think things are changing as the younger folks get in there. They spend time overseas, they go to places like Morocco and China, and they come back with a knowledge of the world that you can’t get just, you know—and you know that as a president of Goucher. You try to get as many students out there as possible.

UNGAR: We’ve got a hundred percent.

NUGENT: A hundred percent, there you go. Congratulations.

UNGAR: Just to keep the record straight. (Laughter.)

I want to ask all of you to speak to the question of whether it has become any easier to raise public consciousness on this issue over the years. I think everyone has been, in one way or another, involved with this issue for a long time.

And looking at your own career path, Michael, you’ve been involved with promoting language study for quite a while.

It’s easy, I think, to convince a broad public that STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math, is very important if the United States is going to stay competitive, if you want to get a job, study STEM, et cetera. But how about language study, how does it compete?


BRIMMER: Well, I would suggest that it’s actually extremely important. And we see communities where there is a demand for it. If you think of students going out to work in the private sector, we see that major companies want to hire people with international capacities.

So, for example, there was a study in 2014 done jointly by the University of Hawaii and the University of Missouri that surveyed 800 business leaders. And what came out of it is there was 83 percent of them said, you know, we need a more internationally competent staff, and 40 percent said there were business opportunities they lost because their staff did not have adequate international competencies. That’s just a snapshot.

But in other words, if we look at the United States as a global economic player, we need to have those international competencies, so there is more people advocating for people, for the workforce coming in with these skills. That’s in addition to, of course, to our foreign policy community that cares about these issues.

UNGAR: Marty, how about you? Has this gotten—you’ve been working on this issue for a long time.

ABBOTT: A long time.

UNGAR: Has it gotten any easier?

ABBOTT: We did national opinion polling of parents and students before we launched our Lead With Language campaign. And we found that, in general, parents thought learning another language equated with success, but they were generally unaware, and the students also, about the tight connection with career opportunities and job opportunities.

And so we’ve seen that with the latest study from the New American Economy. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of ads for bilingual workers doubled, but we still find among businesspeople that they’re not advertising language needs because they don’t think they can find them here in this country. So we have a long way to go to convince the general public that this is something they need to pursue for career opportunities, but also the personal benefits, the personal gains that you have as an individual when you learn another language.

UNGAR: There are lots of personal testimonies of how much of a difference languages have made in people’s careers, but somehow one doesn’t expect to turn on the television or read some federal agency’s flier saying studying Persian, say, Farsi made this huge difference in my life. How do we fix that?

ABBOTT: We need to start early and stay long. We often say we need to make sure that languages are included in the school curricula just the way math is. If you told a parent, oh, your child isn’t going to start learning math until eighth grade, I think we’d have a revolution on our hands. That’s what happens with languages. You really don’t have the opportunity in most cases to learn a language until middle school. So I think we need to listen to parents. They’re starting to demand it, especially elementary school age, parents of elementary students, and really try to move it into the elementary curriculum so that we get long sequences, so they reach the level of proficiency that allows them to go into higher-ed programs with a certain level of proficiency already.

UNGAR: But is there an adequate supply of teachers to do that? Are there teachers available to teach languages in lower and middle schools?

ABBOTT: There is not an adequate supply. The states report every year to the Department of Education their shortages in teachers by subject areas. And for 2016-17, this current school year, 44 states plus the District of Columbia said they had a language teacher shortage. And then you think about 40 states saying they have a science teacher shortage, 42 states saying they have a math teacher shortage. We have a greater language teacher shortage than some of the STEM subjects.

So it’s a place, again, where we can go to the heritage speakers and say here’s a great career opportunity. We’re starting some programs even with high school kids to interest them in becoming language teachers because we know it’s around that age of 15 when students start to crystallize their career aspirations, so we want to get them interested in a teaching field.

UNGAR: Michael, do you have to—do you sort of proselytize? Has Secretary Mattis heard your pitch yet?

NUGENT: I don’t think the secretary has heard it now, but I know he was very engaged when he was wearing the uniform. And I think that I’ll say one thing about what Marty just said. Yes, we do proselytize all the time, that’s kind of our mission. It’s part of our statute to advocate for language learning. We do a lot of outreach.

But I’ll tell you, one thing that I think our biggest problem is, is many people who tell me, oh, yeah, I took Spanish in high school, it was terrible, I can’t say a word. Well, that’s our biggest problem, is that some of the teaching that happened in the past was pretty bad.

And Marty’s organization is working very hard to try to, as we are through our various programs, trying to get students learning effectively. So when they graduate from college, they’re not only able to order a beer maybe, they can actually sit up here, our students who finish the Flagship Program at 26 universities across the country doing the language flagship in Korean, in Persian even, in 12 universities doing Chinese, five doing Arabic, four doing Russian, when those students finish, they can sit on this panel and have this conversation in those target languages.

UNGAR: How many of those students are there now altogether?

NUGENT: Currently enrolled? Currently enrolled, we have signed up a little over a thousand, but there’s 2,000 taking courses in the programs across the country.

UNGAR: And how many have come through the program altogether, if that’s meaningful?

NUGENT: It is meaningful because it takes, as you know, a while and the program is fairly new for people to get through the entire program. It does involve an overseas program. But I believe we have fully certified around 500 people that have gone through this program, that have tested at the level three or the ILR, which means you’re professionally proficient. It means those folks who come from Europe and speak here on this stage in English, they’re using Chinese, Arabic, and Russian at that level. It’s pretty amazing.

UNGAR: Same level as people who come here—

NUGENT: Who come here form Europe who are sitting up here having the same conversation. It is pretty amazing. We are now doing a video project where we’re actually going to be sampling these students sitting in the kind of environment we are now, speaking the language, and having people ask them questions. It is pretty amazing.

UNGAR: So to ask an awkward question, if we have a foreign policy now, if we have one that is characterized as an “America First” foreign policy, does it have room for promoting language study? Or is that a setback, too?

ABBOTT: You know, one thing we’ve found, that languages, for many reasons, resonates on both sides of the aisle.

NUGENT: That’s true.

ABBOTT: And we have just had a national report released, and it was commissioned by Congress.

UNGAR: This is the study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

ABBOTT: Right, of arts and sciences, “America’s Languages: Investing In the 21st Century Language Education.” And two Democratic senators, two Republican, two Democratic House members, two Republican, commissioned the study. And we’re also seeing that at the state level with the Seal of Biliteracy. We have 26 states now that have enacted some kind of documentation on a high school senior’s transcript that demonstrates competence in two languages. And that has been passed by—

UNGAR: That’s a pretty big step.

ABBOTT: —state legislatures that tend to be fairly conservative.

BRIMMER: It’s interesting because we similarly see a bipartisan understanding that it’s important to invest in international competencies. And similarly, so we, of course, look particularly at study abroad and international students coming to the United States. And what’s striking is we just take something like the Simon bill, which was introduced both by Senator Durbin and Senator Wicker—

UNGAR: But was never enacted.

BRIMMER: Right, but reintroduced again, you know. And what’s interesting is it actually is saying that the ability to study abroad, which helps with immersion and really learning a language to a high level of competency, that this is an important skill for the United States, and that being able to create greater access by funding to institutions would be beneficial.

And what’s interesting is that particularly increasing access to study abroad is just as important for international affairs speakers, specialists, but also, you could be an inner-city kid, you could be on a rural farm, it’s not a red state, blue state, it’s how do we get more Americans to have these opportunities. And that’s a bipartisan issue.

UNGAR: I have heard a person of some significance in this very room say that he thinks it’s not a great idea to waste your chits in college on language courses, that you should acquire language in some other informal ways, but not spend your valuable X number of courses in college studying languages.

NUGENT: I would like to take that one because we’ve got great examples—

UNGAR: OK, please do.

NUGENT: —of how that is in fact probably true if the language is poorly taught. In the case of the Flagship Program, not only are we making liberal arts central to an engineer or whatever the major might be, because remember, we’re not doing language majors through Flagship, we’re saying to the Flagship major, you as an environmental science, or health sciences, or engineering student at UT, for example, doing Arabic, University of Texas, you’re committing to learning to the highest levels possible, that is the professional level, while you’re in undergraduate study. What ends up happening is that student’s central aspect of everything they do in engineering or health sciences focuses around their focus area of Arabic studies. And it just makes the richest experience for these students. It’s like an honors program. They come out and they are transformed, but also their discipline is transformed. They are acting and working in their disciplines. When they go overseas, they study in their disciplines. So we are creating kind of a mini honors program nationally that’s focused around this.

So I would say your colleague is probably right if the language is poorly taught, because anything poorly taught is a waste of time. And I think that that’s usually what people are referencing. I took, you know, language X in college, it was a waste of time. Well, we’re trying to change that, and we’re trying to set very clear goals, very clear expectations, and then allowing through funding and other mechanisms and working with universities to create the opportunities for these folks to meet these expectations. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

UNGAR: I’m convinced. (Laughter.)

NUGENT: I’m proselytizing.

UNGAR: There’s still some in the political domain, there are things that hang out there, and I want to point to two before we think about moving to questions and comments from the members.

I don’t know how many other people remember this. I was particularly sensitive to it as a college president at the time. But at some point when he was running for president, Newt Gingrich—oh, I think I know when it was, 2012—Newt Gingrich mocked George (sic; Mitt) Romney for speaking French, and he said he sounds just like John Kerry, he said at the time. (Laughter.) And that is not—you know, that was a pretty high level—a guy speaking who has a lot of people he resonates with, you know, as a politician. That’s one that I’d ask you to address.

The other one is this perennial effort, which I think is perhaps not active at the moment, to declare English the official language of the United States, which I don’t think that bill has ever passed either house of Congress. S.I. Hayakawa, the late senator from California, was the great proponent of it, and having his Japanese name, I think people felt that lent it somehow some more credibility.

That was a very powerful, it never achieved its goal, but it was a pretty powerful influence. So how do we address those two phenomena in the face of a new awareness about studying language?

ABBOTT: I think we need to create a new normal in this country the way it is around the world. In almost every other country of the world, and if it’s not an Anglophone country, it’s very normal to grow up speaking more than one language.

I think what happens in a case of Newt Gingrich, you know, criticizing is that maybe there is some resentment and jealousy, thinking, oh, he’s trying to show off and show that he’s so smart because he knows another language. There’s still that mentality in this country.

UNGAR: You know, there are circles where it’s sort of frowned upon to show off that you speak another language.

ABBOTT: Right. Right. So again, I think it’s starting students early. And there are many students now in what we term dual-language programs where they’re learning half the curriculum in one language and the other half of the curriculum in English. And they’re growing up with language proficiencies that are going to assure that they can get into the Flagship Program because it’s a long sequence, and it’s going to be part of their normal. And that’s what I think we need to try to create.

BRIMMER: I’ll just share this point also about the opportunities that are opened up by speaking languages, and even one just on a foreign policy point. My previous life when I was at State, one of the things we would do at the International Organizations Bureau, of course, was place Americans in international organizations. And some countries are masters at this, of getting their nationals on the international staffs helping shape policy.

But the United States, we’re actually underrepresented, literally, an underrepresented country amongst the United Nations staff. And remember, at the United Nations and at NATO the working languages are English and French. So part of our job was actually to place Americans in key jobs. And usually we’d have brilliant people, great scientists, all sorts of people who we could place in international organizations. Usually, the problem was finding people with the language capabilities. And so for foreign policy reasons, you wanted to be able to make sure you had Americans in key positions, but we needed them to speak another language.

UNGAR: Michael, what do you—I don’t imagine people say to you English ought to be the official language of the country, because they know better. But what would you say if they did say that to you?

NUGENT: Well, I know that, you know, organizations that work worldwide know the realities of their workforce, of their mission. And I know for a fact that many of the government agencies that we work for in promoting the language work of the National Security Education Program, those folks are well-aware of the need.

So I think that the proof—back to your earlier question about, is it easier now than before, and yes and no. I would say it’s easier now because we’ve actually created through some of our efforts a momentum. We’ve created students that we can put up here on stage now consistently, not just a couple, but a whole bunch, 500 of them that can get up here on this stage and do this kind of thing in that target language. Once you start showing that—

UNGAR: I can tell you’re very proud of that.

NUGENT: We are because we were told it couldn’t be done. When we started this, we were told, you remember that, Marty, we were told that cannot be done, students are not capable of doing that. And they are, and we’ve proved it.

And so I think that the point is, as time moves on, more and more of these people move into positions. And, for example, some of the big companies, investment companies will get these people as interns, and they’ll say, how can we get 10 more of these because they never realized that these people existed and could do the kind of work that they do.

So I’m very optimistic about the more we do the work that we’re doing, the more that people will get behind it. Yes, there will always be skeptics.

UNGAR: Well, there’s plenty more we can explore amongst ourselves, but let’s go to the members for questions.

Now, if you will introduce yourself, your name, and your affiliation. And please ask only one question at a time. And try to keep it concise and something worthy of an answer.

Yes. And there’s a microphone coming around. And if you’ll stand to ask your question, I’d appreciate it.

Q: Thank you. (Inaudible)—from Peterson. So you can hear my heavy Hispanic accent.

Question: How are we going to do to ensure that—

UNGAR: Microphone closer.

Q: —in the U.S. we teach languages much earlier? Because I think, I mean, it’s great that we can do it at the university level, but that’s, in many cases, very late, like it was in my case. At 15 years, I still have a very heavy accent. So how we are going to do that? Because it’s painful for parents, the portfolio of languages is very poor in many schools, unless they are very rich public schools, and there’s no even continuancy, because if you start German and you advance, sometimes there’s no way to advance in high school because there are no teachers.

ABBOTT: Peer pressure.

UNGAR: Peer pressure.

ABBOTT: Peer pressure. I think when one district has an elementary language program, I think parents need to put pressure on the neighboring district. They have it, there’s a lot that peer pressure can do. That happens at the state level as well. Both Utah and Delaware, the governors, Governor Huntsman and Governor Markell at the time, pumped a lot of money into elementary language programs because they wanted to grow a multilingual citizenry. And again, Illinois passed the Seal of Biliteracy, all of a sudden Indiana wants it right next door. And so I think we hopefully will see more of that.

As we talk about the recommendations of this national report at the state level and also at the municipal level, I think we’ll see more and more state like New York now have legislation. If more than 20 students speak a home language, they need to provide instruction in that language. So you’re seeing dual-language programs proliferating around the state. So I think we just need to keep up that pressure, and that’s one reason we started the Lead With Languages campaign, so we could get that parent groundswell of support.

UNGAR: Does this require that someone call it an emergency, or do we have too many emergencies already? (Laughter.)

ABBOTT: The language emergency? Yeah, I think we can definitely.

UNGAR: Michael?

NUGENT: I mean, yeah, we’ve been talking about this emergency now for 10 to 15 years.

UNGAR: Right. It’s a long emergency.

NUGENT: Yeah, I mean, in our business it is an emergency. But I would say that it’s one we are resolving. About 2002, 2003 there was a huge recognition of the need, 2005 the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap came out, which actually mapped out a way to deal with this.

UNGAR: What year was that?

NUGENT: 2005, and it’s on the web if you want to see that. It’s a very strategic document that actually kind of set a path to how to deal with these language gaps that we have.

UNGAR: Much progress in 12 years?

NUGENT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we’ve now got the National Language Service Corps which was outlined in that. That’s about 8,000 members, U.S. volunteers who have joined the corps, who are used now. It’s a program run by my office that goes to places in times of need with volunteers. An example would be an earthquake or any kind of situation that would need a surge requirement for languages. And we now, again, just that corps itself has created a community of people who support what we’re trying to do. So all these things were mapped out, and we’ve actually been meeting those things very, very strategically.

UNGAR: Yes, sir.

And if I might reiterate, bring the microphone really close to your mouth and speak directly into it.

Q: Thank you so much. Spencer Boyer from Georgetown University.

I used to be a deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy at the State Department in the Europe and Eurasian Affairs Bureau. And one of the problems that I felt was never really talked about enough was the challenges that a lot of visible minorities had going to certain countries, like Russia and Eastern Europe, where they often came back actually with a fairly negative impression because of some of the challenges they had, even in some cases coming back because they were getting beat up on the metro and those kinds of things.

So my question is, how do you deal with that? On the one hand, we don’t want to pull back and stop sending a lot of our terrifically diverse students to these countries, as I think it’s good for everybody, but on the other hand, we want to be honest with them and honest with the parents about some of the challenges they’ll face. Thanks.

BRIMMER: I’d be happy to take that. Spencer, good to see you.

But indeed, that’s extremely important that we prepare students, their parents, and the administrators that support them for the challenges of study abroad, because it’s important to be able to have these exciting opportunities, but there could be challenges at the places where you’re going. And I’ll say one of the things that NAFSA does is we actually have a whole series of publications on this particular point, working with members who have expertise on study abroad, on best preparatory processes, lessons learned, and how to manage a wide variety of issues of being an American abroad, and what people are going to ask you, what some of their presumptions will be.

And, I think, one of the exciting things, I think, thinking back to my own experience when I was studying abroad, is that there’s been much more evolution, I think, in the field, understanding that, you know, we are a diverse country, and all faces of America should be seen internationally. And we’ve got to recognize that sometimes there will be more challenges. I mean, I got all sorts of issues when I was in—I was only in Geneva, you know. But even traveling other places, that people who support students who study abroad also need to think about, what’s my student going to encounter? What tools do I need to have?

And fortunately, I think, so the profession of people working on study abroad are thinking about how to prepare students for these situations so they have a successful experience and recognize the same thinking happened to you right here in the United States, you know. So you’ve got to figure out, how do we manage in whatever situation we’re in?

UNGAR: Esther, just to pursue that for a second, one of the challenges in study abroad, I know NAFSA is concerned about this, is to democratize study abroad, that more, a broader cross-section of American study abroad, that study abroad itself be more diverse. And we could talk about that all afternoon, but we won’t.

What about language study? Is there an issue, is there a similar issue with language study in this country that we have to make sure that all socioeconomic groups, all ethnic groups, a very diverse population is studying more perhaps than is now?

BRIMMER: Indeed, indeed. And we have to look at—and there are sorts of ways that you can slice it. But first is, are a wide variety of people studying internationally and studying languages? Because as one of the questioners commented, that if you’re in an area where your school district doesn’t have the same resources, can we begin to look at how to provide resources to provide early language study? But also looking at how to provide resources to institutions so that all students can go abroad. And there are many actually quite subtle issues there. We immediately think of the direct financial ones, but there may be additional ones. For example, many students, for example, work and go to school. I mean, half—

UNGAR: That’s right.

BRIMMER: —students who are in higher education are, you know, working and going to school. And so the question is, how do you make sure that people have offsetting resources. They are concerned the job won’t be there when they get back. So you have to look at how you create a package of support around them.

Another thing is that half the students in higher education are in community colleges. So how do we look at the community college experience and say, how can we provide study abroad in fields that are related to—

UNGAR: Well, what about language study? Is language study being done much in community colleges?

BRIMMER: Language study, yes. And there’s—language study’s very much a part of it as well. And the other thing is, looking at what languages are being taught. Are we teaching a wide enough range? And indeed, you have students came from systems where they didn’t have the early language training, how we can help them catch up later on in life. So, yes, I think there are many slices to this question of a more diverse population studying languages and having to have international experiences.


Q: Hello. I’m Young-Key Kim-Renaud from George Washington University.

I have just finished a research project surveying teaching of Korean language and culture in North America.

UNGAR: Speak up a little bit please.

Q: I have just finished a research project studying current status of Korean language and culture education in North America. And one of the—I mean, there are many different problems. But my question is, you could really exploit this enormous opportunity of recent immigrants. We call these people 1.5 generation. And they come with a language, but many of them actually lose it because they are so eager to integrate. And kids are kids anywhere, they want to be like everybody else, so they don’t want to stick out.

So there is a really very serious need of perception change. And when they know it is something to be proud of and a real asset, lots of them are throwing away the diamonds to get some hamburgers. (Laughter.)

UNGAR: Michael, does that affect—what about military recruitment? Could you be paying more attention to this?

NUGENT: Absolutely. And I think there are a number of responses to that. And I think that through various means, there are ways of bringing people into federal service, whether it’s military or government service, with either heritage language, which Marty has defined as a broad spectrum of either one parent speaks it or both speak it at home, you know, whether you went to daycare or not, how much you actually learned, whether you know how to write it, or native language skills because there are a lot of American citizens with native language skills, people who actually grew up overseas, maybe even did their undergraduate degree.

We actually have a program at Georgetown University called the English for Heritage Language Speakers Program. And tomorrow is the open-source analysis program if anybody wants to go to that. It’s very interesting. But these people are native language speakers who are U.S. citizens. And they’re trained to then work in government using their English skills, which we’re trying to train up to the professional level, and their rare skills that they have in the target language, so we do do that.

With the military, every service approaches it differently. But the Air Force has been very, very good with this LEAP Program, Language-Enabled Airmen Program, which they’re now trying to get incoming officers and enlisted and get them sustainment in their language skills that they may have, either native or they may have learned in college or university. And so we are moving in that direction to exploit the native skills or heritage skills that are out there.

Now, our Flagship Program also does recruit Korean language program. In Hawaii you may have seen when you did your research, you should have seen it, I think. (Laughter.)

Q: Some of my students.

NUGENT: Some of your students went there, good. Well, we get a lot of heritage students into that program, and it’s a very popular program for Korean heritage folks.


Q: Thank you. Laura Holgate, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. organizations in Vienna.

And I really so wholeheartedly support everything that’s been said about the professional opportunities that language brings. There’s also an interesting article out by the World Economic Forum about the neurological benefits that being bilingual brings. And I’d love to hear us talk about that.

But my main question has to do with the push in the opposite direction, especially from the national security field, and that’s called a security clearance. Anyone who has studied abroad, lived abroad, has family members abroad, and these are likely to be our richest, you know, stew of language speakers, is going to have a much harder problem getting a security clearance. So I’m wondering, in your advocacy role, and especially, are there lessons learned from the DOD experience that can be applied in the Foreign Service, elsewhere in the U.S. system about, how can we make those people more attractive and more manageable to the security clearance process?

UNGAR: That’s a really good question. And if anything at the moment, there’s an instinct to try to tighten up the security clearance process.

NUGENT: Well, we deal with this every day. The reason being is that we have the Boren Scholars and Fellows Program, which you may have heard of. It requires federal service after time overseas. And since we started that program, we’ve had a challenge with people thinking, well, since they’ve gone overseas, there are too much, it’s going to take too long to clear them kind of thing. In spite of that, over the last 20 years we have persisted in running this program. It’s been very successful getting people, especially in State. State has been a huge benefit of the Boren Program fellows. They also get into the Diplomacy Fellows Program as well. There’s an arrangement for that. But yes, it does take a little longer.

We did a research project about six years ago, and Borens who spend time, because they spend about a year overseas, they take about, not significantly more time, because right now everybody is taking a long time, but they do take a little bit longer.

Now, what we do, we just had our convocation last week, that is we’re sending all 300 folks overseas, we bring in all kinds of people, we give them training, we tell them how to comport themselves. They’re not over there to, you know, change the world, they’re over there to be students, and that’s what they are. So we do do—we are very conscious of that.

But one of the things we haven’t done is given up. Because I think, in my view, for future government service, the most important thing we can do for these folks is give them the opportunity to gain the experiences and insight that they get while they’re still students. Because as you know, once you get into the professional world, it’s very difficult to be able to get those experiences once you’re out of college.

And the other thing is, you know, it’s fine in grad school, but it’s much better in undergraduate when you get these kinds of experiences, because that’s when you’re developing a lot of your insights about things, and you can hone them in graduate school. So we are aware of that, we are working on it, and the board discusses it quite often as well. Thank you for that question.

UNGAR: Yes. Here comes the mic.

Q: Thank you. Henry Nuzum, Seacor Holdings.

We’re 16 years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which we previously called counterinsurgencies. And there are many reasons for our failures to win, but surely part of that or a critical element in counterinsurgency is a linguistic and cultural fluency.

You, Mr. Nugent, described many commendable programs. I’m interested more broadly, has there been a significant increase in the breadth of language capabilities, particularly in the officer corps or our ground forces in the past we’ll call it 15, 16 years? Specifically, we could even look at West Point’s language requirement and snapshots of 2001, let’s take 2008/2009 post-surge as sort of the height of counterinsurgency and, you know, first class 2017.

NUGENT: Excellent question.

Q: And in the hundreds of lessons learned, examining our military challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq, has there ever been an analysis of the impact of our depth or lack of language capability on our fighting efficacy?

NUGENT: That’s a very good question. And I would say I’m glad you brought up West Point, because part of the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap was to follow up with that, probably around 2007, 2008, was to establish a much more robust language program at all three of the military academies. And then, of course, the ROTC program that we actually run. But we work very closely with the service academies.

Yes, there has been a large increase in the number of future military officers studying either in ROTC or the service academies, at the senior military colleges, to get these language skills. And that’s been, clearly, because of the recognition of the need, these are going to be folks working worldwide, regardless of where they are. So that’s the first question there. We have seen a change, we’ve seen an investment. We’ve seen a much different investment at the Defense Language Institute out at Monterey, which we work with very closely. They’ve done an amazing job of increasing their graduation standard from a 2/2 to a 2+/2+, which is much higher for those people, no language education. It is much more difficult to get to that level because the mission requires it.

We do do—we are much better now at looking at what the capabilities are across the services and across the total force through our Language Readiness Index and other types of processes that didn’t exist before. So we are getting much better at looking at what our capabilities are and able to monitor what we’re doing. That’s a great question. Thank you.


Q: Hi. I’m Edwin Williamson.

Just one sort of preliminary comment, the comment about English as the official language. That movement doesn’t seem to me to be the same issues as this.

UNGAR: Can you bring the microphone closer to your mouth?

Q: Just a comment on the comments that were made about the English as the official language movement. It seems to be a totally different question, and it’s not at all inconsistent with bilingualism.

But my question is a little different. And I’m just kind of curious. And I think the idea of getting started sooner and so forth is terrific and is essential. But so, what languages are going to be taught? Who decides that, and on what basis and so forth? How does that work?

We have a good friend who has a son in the Utah schools. And they were a little off put because to get him into what was considered to be the better school, he had to do the French immersion, I don’t think he’s headed toward a U.N. career, as opposed to the Spanish. So they were a little annoyed at that.

ABBOTT: Well, what we always recommend is that the languages taught in the schools reflect the community. And so having the community make the decisions about those languages is the ideal situation. But, of course, that doesn’t always happen because there’s tradition and history with the languages that are offered.

But we do know from the research that learning a second language early on helps you learn a third and a fourth. So because Mike deals with critical languages for the government, students who come to the Flagship with a solid base in French, Spanish, Latin, German, any of the languages that we consider more commonly taught certainly stands at an advantage in terms of learning another language. So it still is a little bit of a conundrum. But schools have a challenge in offering one language at the elementary level, much less, you know, all the languages, so it’s tough.

UNGAR: Yes. Actually, I meant the young woman behind, but I’ll come to you next, OK?

Q: Mariam Safi, a State Department Foreign Service officer.

I’ve spent most of my career in the Middle East and Arabic-speaking countries, so I’ve been through your one and your two of Arabic. And so I was always curious—I also did the Peace Corps in Jordan, so I’ve done the Peace Corps immersion of Arabic. And I found most effectively just being—I mean, it’s a no-brainer, that when you’re immersed you just pick it up so much faster.

I’ve always wondered why at FSI, the Foreign Service Institute, the first year of language is taught in Washington and then you go overseas. So I was just curious if you guys know.

NUGENT: Well, I might take that and be a little bit contrarian with you here. Research shows that if you have a very good grounding in a language before you go overseas for the immersion, you actually do better in your acquisition.

Now, one of the problems with Arabic is that, in the past, they used to teach the modern standard and not the dialects, you know, which is actually spoken in country. That has changed with, I don’t know about FSI, I can’t speak for FSI, but that has changed with DLI, at Defense Language Institute, and certainly with the Flagship Programs, and also with the assessments that we use.

So our preferred approach to language acquisition is to give students a very good grounding and then get them overseas for an immersion and not just send them directly in country, and especially if they’re going to a country where English is dominant, India for example. We’ve had horrible results in getting people to learn Hindi if they just go in country. Now, if they learn it in advance, we have a program called the South Asian Flagship Initiative. They learn Hindi first and then go in country for their immersion, they come back speaking Hindi. Huge difference in that.

So I would say I agree a hundred percent with you. Being overseas, there’s nothing like it. And every program we have, it involves an overseas stint. But getting initial language acquisition by good teachers really helps as well.

UNGAR: Anyone else want to add to that?

BRIMMER: Just to say that it also speaks for having more people when they do study abroad to go more countries. Because 40 percent now, 40 percent of Americans, go to four countries. You know, they go to the U.K., France, Germany, and Spain, which is fine, but we need to have more people going to more countries so they can have the in-depth immersion to perfect the languages we’re looking at.

UNGAR: I promised you next.

Q: Hi. My name is Adam McKay, and I actually run a language school here in D.C.

And one of my concerns is related to technology and the future and the future demand for language. We talked about the language emergency, but to what extent can technology solve that? And 10 years out, can we talk into our phone and have simultaneous translations in any language?

NUGENT: Well, let me say that we’ve been anticipating this for quite some time. We actually established a language technology center. We put out an RFP, request for proposals, from universities. University of Hawaii won that award and they are now a center looking at how they can use technology to enhance already good language instruction. That’s very important that I say that because there’s all kinds of uses for language technology. A lot of people do Duolingo. I actually do it because I like the challenge every day of making sure I don’t lose the, you know, the progression. I pick various different languages just to do it.

And it’s also a thing about habit-building, technology. But what we’re trying to do in the Flagship Technology Innovation Center out in Hawaii, and it’s available on the website, it’s a wonderful website, if you haven’t seen it, check it out, what we’re trying to do there is ask the question, how can we take already really good language instruction and improve it by infusing the best technologies, just as you point out? I mean, my cellphone does some pretty amazing language stuff already. How do we get smart minds to be able to do that in ways where it can really enhance the commute? For example, people commute, I commute a lot, so I’m using my cellphone a lot every single day listening to French news, for example, or other types of lectures in different languages to keep my languages sustained. But how do you build that into the curriculum is the question they’re asking.

And that’s a great question because I think five years from now who knows what the cellphone is going to be able to do because five years ago it wasn’t doing what it does now, right? So I think it’s a great question. Thank you.

UNGAR: Mr. McKay, what languages do you teach in your school?

Q: We have a big ESL program, we’re an importing school. And then we teach—(off mic).

UNGAR: You teach up to 80 languages.

Q: Right, yeah. And D.C. is a great market to find language teachers.

NUGENT: Yeah, that’s true.

UNGAR: OK, yes.

Q: Hi. Carolyn Campbell, I am a partner in a firm called Emerging Capital Partners, and we buy private companies in Africa continent-wide, so you have to speak French, you have to speak English, and Arabic helps.

I wanted to ask, you seem to track language desirability or needs or the U.S. does based on hotspots. Farsi, you know, you’ve got to learn maybe Russian right now, there’s some languages that become key. To what extent do we track economic power of language?

I think of Mark Zuckerberg speaking Chinese. I think of the Japanese language craze in the ‘80s. French? You know, you can say what you want, but you’re walking around West and North and Central Africa, you pretty much should know French. So I’d be grateful to hear if that’s a factor. Thank you.

NUGENT: I’ll just say we do have a French program. It’s in Senegal. And not only do you learn French, you actually learn Wolof as well while you’re three. And we’ve discovered that there are so many places now, especially in Africa, but other places as well, like Kazakhstan where it’s Kazakh and Russian. There’s a lot of dual-language places where people function. In Morocco, it’s French and Arabic, the dialect they speak there.

So as we get to more sophisticated levels of teaching, those factors come in. Yes, you do look not just at hotspots, you look at long-term partnerships, large countries that have resources. Those things are very, very important in investing because you do want to be able to build very strong partnerships with countries, regardless of—we don’t know five, 10 years what our relationships will be. So, if we build those relationships, as well as dealing with hotspots, those are very important. So French is important as well, Spanish is important.

And I think that, you know, again, the reason why we don’t do Western Europe right now, per se, as a region is that so many students go there already. And, you know, partly that’s the reason.

UNGAR: Marty, go ahead

ABBOTT: I just wanted to add to that. I think cities and states in this country are stepping up to that economic indicator. That’s the reasons that both Utah and Delaware gave for starting students early, was that economic, you know, attracting international business to their states and being able to do trade abroad.

We’re seeing cities put together plans. Indianapolis just did one called Global Indy and it talks about how they want to build their capacity to attract foreign businesses and be able to do more trade. And so I think that that’s starting to wake up, we just haven’t really seen it at the federal level.

UNGAR: Marty, and we’ll take one last question, but I want to ask you one other thing, in your organization, the American Council on Teaching on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, can you trace—are there teachers of a lot of different languages, including what you might think of as alternative languages, who are elected to the board, who have influence in your organization?

ABBOTT: Absolutely. We still call them less commonly taught languages, but we do have, I think, 69 languages represented in our membership. And we certainly do look for representation. We have a special interest group for Korean language teachers, one for Arabic teachers, and other languages as well. So we have quite an array.

UNGAR: OK, last question. Yes, sir.

Q: First of all, thank you very much indeed for this timely panel. It’s been excellent. I’ve learned a lot from being here today.

My name is Tony Culley-Foster, I’m president of the World Affairs Council in D.C. Our focus is global education, international affairs, global communications.

Disclosure: I’m an Irishman married to a French woman. (Laughter.) Don’t underestimate the power of romance and love to accelerate language development. (Laughter.)

The other thing is I’ve had the ultimate cultural revenge for an Irishman. I taught English to the English in England for 10 years. (Laughter.)

I agree with many of the key points that have been made here today. We are working on programs that integrate those points, and I want to share one of them with you today. You’re all aware of President Obama’s 1 Million Strong initiative. We looked at that and we decided, was there a potential for us to create a strategic partnership here in the United States to accelerate the acquisition of Mandarin language skills for many young people, particularly young people in high school and those going into undergrad?

On Monday night, we launched a program called the U.S.-China Global Education Television Series, guaranteed to be broadcast nationwide in China and nationally here in the U.S. We had Chas Freeman there, who, as you know, was the chief interpreter for Nixon’s trip to China that opened up that whole dialogue. A great linguist, understands the power of language. We had Dan Mote, former president of the University of Maryland, who established the first Confucius Institute in the United States.

Since 2004, that has spread to 565 Confucius Institutes throughout the world. There are 110 in the United States; 105 of them are linked to major universities. And it’s a partnership program, there’s no direction or oversight with regard to curriculum. GW, George Mason, and University of Maryland in our area each have thriving, highly successful programs in place, and they also have study abroad going out to China. And so that language is reinforced. The language training that’s provided through the Confucius Institute here is reinforced by an integrated study abroad program.

So it’s something I would recommend that you look at. It’s an enormously powerful and good resource. And we don’t see any downside to it at all. In fact, we’re very proud to be helping them lay out the national organization for the Confucius Institute in the U.S.

Thank you very much indeed.

UNGAR: Thank you.

NUGENT: Thank you.

UNGAR: Final comments from anyone in response to that?


BRIMMER: Our organization has been a strategic partner with that effort as well.

NUGENT: My son went on the Maryland Confucius Institute to China, so I—

BRIMMER: We’ve been strong supporters of the World Affairs Council, so we’ve worked on—

Q: Esther is on our—

BRIMMER: I’m on your board—(laughs)—so I think it’s an excellent program.

NUGENT: You enjoyed it very much, thank you.

BRIMMER: Yes, yes.

UNGAR: Well, thank you all very much.

NUGENT: Thank you.

UNGAR: I look forward to the moment X number of years down the road when we can get together again and talk about how successful we’ve been.

NUGENT: Thank you.

ABBOTT: Thank you, Sandy.

UNGAR: Thanks.

NUGENT: Thank you. (Applause.)


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