President George W. Bush has used a gathering of university presidents to launch a $114 million campaign to expand the teaching of Arabic, Urdu and Farsi.
The goal of the National Security Language Initiative is to produce 2,000 advanced speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Central Asian languages over the next several years to enhance not only national security, but cultural understanding, government officials said.
Even that is far short of the demand. The Defence Department alone needs 3,000 people a year with basic language skills. Yet only 15 primary schools in the entire country teach Arabic and there are only 2,000 teachers of Chinese. By comparison, there are some 200 million Chinese students learning English. Among university students, fewer than 8 per cent take foreign language courses and only 1 per cent pursue a degree in a foreign language.
"This is part of a major public diplomacy priority to not only encourage Americans to speak foreign languages, but to understand other cultures, to travel, to become global citizens," said Dina Powell, assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs. "Public diplomacy is certainly not the work of government officials. It's a part of it, but it really is about Americans as they travel."
Some of the money will pay for university students, including low-income candidates, to study languages abroad. There are also plans to make financial incentives available for university graduates with language skills to teach in lower schools.
The programme, conceived by the then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, is conceived as being similar to the national emphasis on science that followed the shock of the Sputnik launch by the Soviet Union in 1957.
"We're facing an ideological struggle, and we're going to win," President Bush told about 100 university presidents who were briefed on the programme in Washington DC.