Monday, March 12, 2007

Efforts to improve reading, math and science skills may be on the nation’s educational forefront, but quieter efforts are being made by educators and the government to prepare children for the future by teaching them languages such as Arabic and Chinese.

The National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland is spearheading one such effort by awarding federal grants averaging $100,000 to 34 groups in 21 states and the District, to teach the two languages in intensive camp and school programs this summer.

Arabic and Chinese will be taught to some 1,100 high school students and an additional 600 Arabic and Chinese speakers will be trained how to teach the languages.

“We need to start teaching critical languages like Arabic and Chinese much earlier in life, if the nation is to develop the skills needed for national security and economic competitiveness,” said Catherine Ingold, the language center’s director.

The program is one of about a dozen in the National Security Language Initiative started by the Bush administration in 2006. Last weekend, the language center hosted program leaders in the District to help them develop strategies for setting up summer programs.

“We’re at a great disadvantage in terms of our ability to communicate with other countries,” Ms. Ingold said. “We’re pretty far behind the eight ball on that, as a nation.”

She added that “in all but a handful of spots, we lack the programs and teachers,” to teach Arabic and Chinese.

The summer programs aim to spur national interest in the languages because, ultimately, local school boards will decide what is added to their respective curricula.

The language center received $4.8 million from the federal government. Recipients of the funds are diverse — some programs offer total immersion language training, while others start with more modest training. Many are set up to train both students and teachers.

Securing certified teachers who can teach these languages is a big part of the overall language-education problem.

“On a national basis, we’re almost starting from scratch,” said Gerald Lampe, deputy director of the center and coordinator of the Arabic portion of the initiative.

Part of the problem, Ms. Ingold said, is that college graduates who are trained in these languages have trouble finding the real-world experience they need to get their certification.

“We’ll give these teachers some of the classroom experience they’ll need for certification,” Mr. Lampe said.

Eventually, officials at the language center want to expand the program to middle schools and include other languages such as Hindi, Persian and Korean.

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