Foreign language enrollment bucks national trend

Despite a noted descent nationwide in foreign language education, Portland State’s enrollment in such programs is growing.

Dr. Sandra Rosengrant, department chair of Foreign Languages and Literature, said she finds this gratifying.

According to the Modern Language Association, 15 K-12 public schools in the U.S. teach Arabic. Less than 2 percent of high school students in the U.S. today study Farsi, Urdu, Korean, Arabic, Japanese, Russian or Chinese. In an effort to combat this national decline, President George W. Bush proposed a National Security Language Initiative last month. He requested $114 million for the 2007 fiscal year from Congress.

Rosengrant said it is premature to tell what this will mean for PSU, but said the university is poised to apply competitively for grants that may become available from the initiative.

The initiative is a partnership between the Department of Education, the Department of Defense and the director of National Intelligence.

“Our goal is, in essence, to ramp up the mastery of these critical languages, not solely for national security reasons but also in terms of America’s standing in the world,” said Barry Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, at a briefing on the program.

The administration intends to produce 2,000 advanced speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi and Central Asian languages over the next several years.

Rosengrant noted that the language department at PSU has been expanding its programs. Last fall they hired a new assistant professor of Farsi. She hopes to add a Farsi minor to the available major in Chinese and minor in Arabic. “We simply cannot afford to be monolingual or monocultural,” Rosengrant said, and noted that she finds PSU students to be aware of this fact. In the fall of 2004 Arabic classes offered at PSU yielded 120 students, and Rosengrant said the program has grown.

A component of the administration’s strategic language plan entails expanding a Fulbright Scholarship program where Fulbrighters come to the United States and teach languages. Last year PSU hosted Fulbright teaching assistants from Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan. “These are wonderful, wonderful young people,” Rosengrant said. She said they plan to continue participation in the program, and next year will have teachers from Oman, Turkey, Russia, India and Iran.

The Fulbright teaching assistants at PSU support the newfound Heritage Language Initiative at PSU. Native literacy instruction is targeted at the languages with significant populations in Portland. The classes are taught in part by members of the community. The list comprises Arabic, Cantonese, Hindi, Farsi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu and Vietnamese.

Bush noted that understanding another language is a kind gesture. “When somebody comes to me and speaks Texan, I know they appreciate the Texas culture,” he said. “When Americans learn to speak a language, learn to speak Arabic, those in the Arabic region will say, gosh, America is interested in us. They care enough to learn how we speak.”