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Bush Expected to Hike Funding for Language Training


Today President Bush is expected to announce a big hike in funding for the study of foreign languages such as Arabic, Korean and Chinese. These are considered critical to national security. The hundreds of millions of dollars in funding could be welcomed by many university officials, unless it comes with strings attached. NPR's Elaine Korry has more.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

President Bush is expected to unveil the proposal at a summit on international education attended by university presidents. Much of the money reportedly will go to the Pentagon to beef up language training at military schools such as West Point and the US Naval Academy. But a big chunk of the funding should also float to colleges and universities. Anne Betteridge directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona, where she says more money is sorely needed.

Ms. ANNE BETTERIDGE (University of Arizona): If we had enough money to hire additional well-trained instructors of Arabic, we could--we have students who would be very interested in learning it. We have to restrict the number of sections that we offer because we won't open more classes if we don't have people who are really well qualified to teach it.

KORRY: Title VI of the Higher Education Act outlines the main programs to support the study of critical foreign languages and regions. According to Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education, funding in this area is actually lower now than it was during the Cold War.

Ms. MIRIAM KAZANJIAN (Coalition for International Education): These programs today are funded at approximately 25 to 30 percent below their high point in constant dollars in 1967.

KORRY: Funding for critical language study did increase right after the 9/11 attacks, says Kazanjian, but has since dropped down again. The result, according to Juan Cole, president of the Middle East Studies Association, is a critical shortage of trained American linguists in the State Department and on the ground in places such as Iraq.

Mr. JUAN COLE (President, Middle East Studies Association): And although knowing foreign languages is not in and of itself a resolution of anything, it's the beginning of knowledge of other cultures, and it's a basis for at least possibly good decision-making.

KORRY: The problem is although high schools and colleges have foreign language requirements, more students study German each year than all the critical languages such as Arabic, Farsi or Korean combined. One exception is at the government's Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Thirty-five hundred students there are trained in everything from Dari and Pashto, the languages of Afghanistan, to Uzbek. The institute is expected to receive extra funds, about $362 million. Cole says academic leaders should be encouraged by the administration's new commitment, even if the Pentagon's role in channeling the funds is a little troubling.

Mr. COLE: We've just urged people to be cautious about taking money that has strings attached. I mean, that's the real issue.

KORRY: Anne Betteridge, the Middle East expert at the University of Arizona, is also concerned.

Ms. BETTERIDGE: There is a lot of suspicion in other parts of the world that when we train people in foreign languages, that it's only for covert intelligence purposes. We know that that's not the case, but that is the suspicion.

KORRY: Betteridge and some of her colleagues hope to see a big piece of the new funding proposal handled by the Department of Education rather than Defense.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

United States & World Morning Edition
Elaine Korry is an NPR contributor based in San Francisco. From August 2004-June 2007 she worked as an NPR senior reporter covering social policy for NPR, with a focus on education, and on the lives of the nation's most vulnerable citizens — the homeless, those living in poverty, working in low wage positions, and trying to find their way to a more stable life.