Lawmakers unveil bills to improve language proficiency

By Brittany Ballenstedt

February 1, 2007

Legislation introduced Wednesday highlights the need for more multilingual workers across the federal government to translate counterterrorism intelligence.

"It is troubling that five and a half years after September 11, the federal government still lacks a coordinated strategy and leadership to increase the number of Americans who are proficient in foreign languages," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce and sponsor of the Senate measure (S. 451).

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., introduced a companion to the National Foreign Language Coordination Act in the House (H.R. 747).

The 2000 Census found that only 9.3 percent of Americans speak both their native language and another language fluently, compared with 56 percent of people in the European Union.

Additionally, the Iraq Study Group reported last month that of the 1,000 American embassy workers employed in Baghdad, only 33 speak Arabic. Of the 33, only six are fluent. The study group recommended that the State and Defense secretaries, the Director of National Intelligence and U.S. officers and personnel about to be assigned to Iraq give language proficiency and cultural training the "highest possible priority."

The bills from Akaka and Baird would prompt the federal government to collaborate with educators, state and local governments, foreign language associations and the private sector to increase the number of Americans who speak and understand foreign languages.

The bill also would establish a National Foreign Language Coordination Council within the Executive Office of the President to develop and oversee the implementation of a comprehensive American foreign language strategy.

In addition, the measure aims to integrate language training into career fields in the government and private sector and increase the number of language-proficient professionals.

Akaka's subcommittee held a hearing last week on the federal government's language strategy.

Dr. Diane Birckbichler, director of the Foreign Language Center and chair of the departments of French and Italian at Ohio State University, testified that "if there is a national language strategy, it isn't very well known." Birckbichler further recommended that the government establish a national language policy to create a language-ready workforce for the future.

"Just as I have advocated the need for deputy secretaries for management at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security to direct and sustain management leadership, I envision a national language director to be responsible for maintaining and leading a cooperative effort to strengthen our foreign language capabilities," Akaka said in a statement.

By Brittany Ballenstedt

February 1, 2007