Language Immersion in Arabic and Chinese


The demand for K-12 international educational programs that include language training is increasing dramatically in the United States. Arabic, in particular, is experiencing dramatic growth. Designated a “strategic” language by the U.S. government, Arabic faces unprecedented demand for instruction in schools across the U.S., from kindergarten upwards. Not long ago, Middle Eastern languages comprised only 2 percent of all foreign language classes in the United States. A Modern Language Association survey revealed a 92 percent rise in Arabic enrollments between 1998 and 2002 — to 10,600. From 2002-2006, the number of students enrolled in Arabic courses in college increased from 10,584 students to 23,974 students—a 126.5% jump.

The U.S. Department of Education has responded to meet the demand for new Arabic education. Federal funds for various international education programs are up 33 percent since 2001 to $103.7 million in 2004. Specifically, grants for foreign language and area studies rose 65 percent during this period. A myriad federally-funded opportunities are available for students and educators to learn Arabic in the United States. The U.S. government is also encouraging schools to start language training sooner. “We’re living in a global society,” said Wilbert Bryant, deputy assistant secretary for higher education in the U.S. Department of Education. “We must be able to speak the languages of many countries. The only way is to start at K-12. It’s the only way to remain competitive and retain our position as the superpower in the world.”

In addition to Arabic, the rise of China is driving new demand for Chinese language speakers across business and social sectors. Yet schools throughout the United States are largely unprepared to meet this need, lacking qualified teachers, programs, or creative uses of modern educational technologies, according to a study by Asia Society. The report, entitled “Expanding Chinese Language Capacity in the United States,” calls for a national commitment to new investments in teaching Chinese language and culture. Created by Asia Society’s education division, the report documents a growing consensus among national security and business leaders, educators, and foreign language experts. Its analysis of the current status of Chinese language instruction concludes that the current infrastructure to support recruitment of students and teachers as well as the growth of high quality programs is woefully inadequate.

As China grows into a major world player, Chinese language skills are becoming critical to national prosperity and security. Yet, a recent study shows only 24,000 students in grades 7-12 study Chinese, a language spoken by 1.3 billion people. In contrast, more than one million students learn French, a language spoken by only 80 million people. “Our nation’s schools are locked in a time warp. By ignoring critical languages such as Chinese and the essential cultural knowledge needed to succeed, our school systems are out of step with new global realities. This report urgently highlights the need for an expanded national commitment to world languages and international studies,” said Charles Kolb, President of the Committee for Economic Development.

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