The Acquisition of Foreign Languages
as a National Priority for America


The keynote speech delivered by Dr. William Hopkins to the American council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC
November 23, 1991.

I am especially pleased to be invited to speak to you on the occasion of the Council's 25th Anniversary. It is a pleasure and an honor. Although, I must confess, it is also something of a daunting task. I am not often faced with the prospect of getting up in front of such a large and distinguished group and speaking my own words. As a professional interpreter the words I work with usually belong to someone else. My task is to convey them. So as long as I am careful, I am not responsible for tortured metaphors, solecisms ... or the fluttering eyelids of an uninspired audience. That burden lies with the original speaker. Nor can I relax confidently today behind the distinguished and historic phrases of a Ronald Reagan or Eduard Shevardnadze, George Bush or a Mikhail Gorbachev. Today I'm on my own.

And, as proof that I've learned a few lessons in 18 years of working with the masters, I will begin with something prudent and diplomatic: I will applaud you, and your organization, for a quarter century of outstanding service. The accolade is richly deserved and sincerely rendered. For 25 years foreign language educators like yourselves have helped students and professionals in business and in academia, in the arts and in government, to understand the world around us better, through language.

Facilitating the acquisition of a foreign language is vitally important work. You are the men and women who help unlock the doors to the many and varied rooms that comprise the endlessly fascinating palace of nations andcultures that is our modern world. Language is the key, for words can ultimately make the difference between ignorance and understanding, between poverty and wealth, between war and peace. My admiration for your profession, I am proud to say, comes from direct experience. From the first day I began to teach, as a 21-year old graduate student at Indiana University, I was engaged in something that had always appealed to me. I truly loved teaching and felt like a natural at it, as though it were something I was born to do. And despite the fact that my career path has led in a somewhat different direction, I have always thought of myself, first and foremost, as a teacher. Even now when I interpret, I feet, in a certain sense, as though I am educating, delivering information from a source to a receiver. So I know firsthand something of what all of you know so well: the gratification - and the frustration - of teaching a foreign language. And part of the frustration is this: all too often the hard work you do remains misunderstood by our fellow citizens, by elected officials at all levels of government, and worse, even by many students themselves.

Beyond that, however, and much more disturbing in its ramifications, is the fact that on the list of national priorities in this country, the acquisition of a foreign language by American students is very conspicuously, yet very definitely, absent.

Why should this be so? Under different circumstances, it might be understandable; granted, the country has many pressing needs. But in the present, extraordinary circumstances of accelerated, historic change in world affairs, an attitude of neglect towards foreign language acquisition has the makings of a catastrophic blunder.

The world, it is often said, is growing smaller. Yet in our country, ignorance of foreign languages and of foreign cultures seems to be growing ever larger. As professionals, you are aware of the depth of the problem. But let us examine some statistics for a moment: currently only 8 percent of United States college students are studying a foreign language. Only one out of four US. colleges requires its graduating students even to have studied a foreign language. The requirement is to have studied, not to have "achieved proficiency," or even a moderately profound comprehension.

According to the office of Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, 356,000 students from other countries came to study in the United States in 1990. In the same year, only some 24,000 American students traveled abroad to study. The single country of Malaysia had more of its students studying abroad than did the United States of America. Again, according to Senator Boren's statistics, in 1990, students graduating from high school in Japan were required to have taken six years of instruction in English. Thus, one hundred percent of Japanese high school graduates at least had an opportunity to achieve some fluency in English. It is somewhat different here. No more than two one-hundredths of one percent of American high-schoolers received instruction in even the fundamentals of the Japanese language.

The European Community has set a goal that clearly exhibits where its priorities lie. By the year 2000, every 16-year old student will be expected to speak two languages in addition to his or her own. How many trilingual American students does one encounter in a typical week?

In connection with the advent of the EC, we hear a lot about a "fortress Europe:' and economically, the term may be apt. But ethnically and culturally, that fortress is a busy crossroads, and getting busier. Why should it be any different in our country? The ethnic diversity of the United States is one of our greatest assets. We have available to us in this country a motherlode of ethnic knowledge and ethnic experience. But so far we have not yet come to appreciate fully these valuable resources or devised strategies to exploit them.

It may be true that in some ways the world is shrinking. But, at the same time,, it is becoming more complex. In the former Soviet Union alone, the end of pax sovietica, the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the fragmentation of the Union itself were all unthinkable scenarios a few short months ago. No one can say with certainty what the political outcome of these events will be. But, linguistically, we could have the makings of a new Babel: the sudden explosion of a country in which 135 languages are spoken and five distinct alphabets used. Perhaps the next generation of Uzbeks or Kazakhs, as they prepare for a greater role on the world stage, will be less inclined simply to accept the dominance of the Russian or English languages. Perhaps - and this is the more troubling conjecture - they will not have to.

As the very recent Soviet past has shown us once again, there is no guarantee that the future will bear any resemblance to the present. What certainty do we have that our linguistic predominance will endure? Even if it does, and even if it increases, a meaningful and lasting exchange may be beyond our capabilities if we cannot communicate with would-be partners in their own language. And if there is no understanding of their language, a comprehension of their culture may be out of the question entirely. We need to be able to participate in a dialogue: talking with, not talking at or down to representatives of other cultures. Can we expect to excel in the 21st century if we remain a monolingual society, an island-nation, at once blessed and yet cursed with linguistic hegemony, a nation that must rely almost exclusively on the outmoded device of linguistic imperialism. If we attempt to do so, we will surely suffer the political and economic consequences - and not just abroad, but at home, as well.

I believe we are approaching a critical point. Measures must be undertaken to assure that we, as a country, secure for ourselves the linguistic capabilities necessary to help shape and participate in the future of the international community.

And what must be done is this: The acquisition of foreign languages by American students must be established as a national priority. In ourgovernment, in our universities, our colleges and our schools, in our communities, in our homes - acquisition of a foreign language, learning how to speak to the rest of the world, must come to be accepted as a national priority.

Here in Washington, there are encouraging signs that some individuals, at least, are aware of what is at stake. I mentioned Senator Boren. His initiative, termed the National Security Education Act, cosponsored by Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia and Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, would target $180 million for scholarships, grants and fellowships here and abroad to improve cultural and language training at the university level. The intent of this legislation is to provide more foreign language experts for United States intelligence agencies and the diplomatic service.

Following the allied victory in the Gulf War, some voices were raised here in Washington, in the Senate and in the CIA, expressing alarm at the lack of qualified Arabic speakers in the American intelligence community. Senator Nunn has gone on record as suggesting that if the foreign language skills of our diplomatic, policy and intelligence communities had been greater in this instance, we might actually have avoided a military conflict. These are very high stakes indeed, in the Senator's opinion; literally, a matter of life and death. Intensive language training for college students may help solve what the intelligence community is beginning to recognize as a critical problem, and the National Security Education Act is a welcome initiative.

Another welcome initiative is the Global Education Act of 1991, sponsored by Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Representative Leon E. Panetta of California. It would authorize $42 million to strengthen the nation's commitment to international education, and to expand the study of foreign languages and cultures. Through federal grants to universities and high schools, it would help develop innovative teacher education programs and provide teaching materials and resources. Students could use funds for study abroad. But these welcome initiatives will not provide a solution to the even greater problem in our nation's grade schools and high schools. Only one small federal program, the Foreign Language Assistance Program, is designed to assist foreign language training in the schools.

But if foreign language acquisition is ever to become a national priority, before we talk about programs or policy, it is imperative that a change in belief take place in this country. And that does not mean in the offices of the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. It means in our homes.

We don't have to go halfway around the globe to find instances of how crucial non-English language skills can be. Last spring, only a few blocks from here, in one of Washington's most culturally diverse neighborhoods, there were riots and looting, curfews and arrests. According to news reports, part of the problem could be traced to a feeling of frustration on the part of the Hispanic community who felt that, for years, their voices had not been heard - literally, could not be understood - by city authorities: from police officers on the beat who could not speak Spanish, to officials in City Hall who knew next to nothing of Hispanic culture.

What can we do to help bring about the profound change in our value system that is needed, not only at the level where policy takes shape, but also at the grassroots level? At the local level, it might be hard to motivate a grade schooler to plunge into the study of Swahili or Mandarin simply because someone in Washington has declared that the patriotic thing to do. And how will we counter the argument that in reality English is the lingua franca of business and commerce, that all the other cultures of the world must learn English to survive, so why should there suddenly be a panic about churning out little bilingual Americans - especially in view of our finite resources and other overwhelming national problems.

When I began putting my thoughts together for this address, it seemed to me the subject I needed to speak to was this: How can we convince America7s students of the imperative to study and master foreign languages? Well, I think the answer is we can't. Not unless we can convince our society at large - the general public, business and civic leaders, school boards, teachers, parents, the taxpayers - of the value in that activity.

After some reflection I believe the question that actually needs to be addressed is much larger: What can we do to foster broad-based acceptance of the belief in our publicly-held system of values in this country that for many self-evident reasons, acquisition of foreign languages and gaining knowledge of other cultures is beneficial behavior - survivally-oriented behavior - both in terms of the individual as well as the nation.

Our acceptance of that belief brings us together here today and makes us desire to promote acceptance of that belief by our compatriots, as a matter of national priority.

I was not invited to speak to you today because I possess some secret formula that might magically transform our country into a nation of bilingual experts in international diplomacy, and I do not pretend to have the answers to all the questions I have raised so far. But perhaps I can offer some food for thought based on my own experience as a foreign language student, teacher and professional interpreter. When I was asked to address this convention, I hesitated at the idea of going into an account of personal experiences. Although I am standing here before you because I am a professional diplomatic interpreter, and I have had a degree of professional success thanks to my knowledge of a foreign language, at first I was not convinced it was worthwhile taking up your time with anecdotes of a personal nature, interesting as they may be. However, after giving it some thought, I realized that a first-person account might be the best way to provide some further insight into the subjects I wanted to discuss today.

I come from a town that hardly anyone in this hall today has ever heard of. Storm Lake, Iowa. It is a tiny community of 8,000 souls in the farm country of Buena Vista County, an area referred to as the American heartland. However, it is not a region noted for its teeming multiculturalism. My exposure to foreign languages and Cultures was virtually nonexistent in Storm Lake, Iowa, in the 1950s. Moreover, my family is of Irish extraction - nothing exotically ethnic there that would point to a career in foreign languages for me.

I was first aware of the fact that reality is not English-language based and of other languages being spoken when I was 7 or 8 years old, while visiting my grandparents' home in Cleveland, Ohio. They lived amidst the large Slavic community there. I was fascinated by the strangeness of the sounds of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian, and also by a beautiful, onion-domedOrthodox church which dominates the western skyline of Cleveland. I was in high school when Nikita Khrushchev visited Iowa to learn about U.S. agriculture - the only Soviet leader ever to do so. Some time later, Sputnikwas launched; some of you remember the furor. The Soviet Union was everywhere in the news. I began to think seriously about the possibility of studying Russian, and that became feasible when I enrolled in the University of Iowa where, at the time, study of a foreign language was required. I tooksome Russian courses and got pretty good grades. Through a language study tour organized by Indiana University, I visited Russia in 1962 roughly the equivalent of visiting Mars nowadays.

After that trip I transferred to Indiana University and became a Russian major. I assumed I would go into teaching. That seemed like a promising career choice; however, by the time I finished the university, job prospects for Slavicists in academia were bleak. In 1973, 1 came to Washington to finish research on my doctoral dissertation at the Library of Congress. It was on that trip that I literally bumped into an old friend from my trip to Russia who had since become a foreign service officer. He advised me to get in touch with Language Services at the State Department. This was during the Nixon administration, the era of detante, and the government was looking for Russian language specialists. Before long, I had an interpretive contract with the State Department, and that profession seemed to have something of a future for me. So it was almost entirely by happy accident that I came to work as an interpreter.

While I was a student, I never dreamed that eventually my language training would lead me literally around the world in the company of the most powerful political figures of our day. But as it turns out, it did. I interpreted at the Geneva arms talks from 1982 to 1991, negotiations by which the fates of millions of human beings were affected. I am fortunate enough to have been present at the most important superpower summit meetings of the past few years - Geneva, Reykjavik, Moscow, Washington, Malta, Helsinki. I have served as interpreter to two US. and at least five foreign presidents; to two U.S. Secretaries of State; to dozens of cabinet secretaries, various Soviet ministers and other highly placed officials. Lately I have been interpreting at regular meetings with the head of the former Soviet KGB. As an interpreter, I know that the role I play in all this is a supporting role, and maybe a minor one in the larger scheme of things. But I have had the great privilege of watching from the wings, and sometimes even from close to center stage, as the drama of history has played out in front of the whole world. However, none of those moments can ever surpass for me the experience I had in Moscow last August during and after the attempted coup. A few weeks earlier, in late June, I had been offered a position with newly-appointed Ambassador Robert Strauss, who was preparing to take up his post in the Soviet Union. But I had just accepted an interesting new job with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and so I had decided to turn down his offer. However, on August 19th, in the midst of the attempted coup, I got a call from Ambassador Strauss's office. I was asked to accompany him to Moscow the very next day.

I had heard the news of the coup against Gorbachev the same way most of you probably did: I got up in the morning and found myself staring in disbelief at the newspaper headlines. I was alarmed by what was happening, and not only for geopolitical reasons. I had met Gorbachev on numerous occasions. I found him a compelling, world-class figure, a man I greatly admired. For the first two days of the coup, as you remember, there was no certainty that he was even alive. After that phone call from Strauss's office, any reservations I may have had about going to Russia immediately disappeared. For thirty years I had had an interest in the Soviet Union. I knew personally many of the people who found themselves threatened by the turn of events (as well as many of those who perpetrated the coup). I felt I simply had somehow to be part of one of the most significant events in the last 74-year history of that country. The next day we arrived in Moscow. The coup was still on. The atmosphere was grim and frightening. There was a great deal of confusion. The streets around the Russian Parliament were filled with tanks and people. The situation seemed to be changing nearly every hour. In the absence of Gorbachev, we were not even certain who our interlocutors were to be. However, by the end of our first day there, it was clear that the coup had been routed. The moment of extreme danger and fear had passed, replaced by joy and exaltation.

The next morning the Ambassador and I found ourselves moving through an immense crowd of people. We were in Manyezh Square in downtown Moscow. This was the memorial service for the three Soviet boys who had been killed defending the parliament building against the tanks. The Ambassador was scheduled to deliver a message of support and condolence from President Bush. When we finally made it to the area behind the stage, we literally ran into Gorbachev. That was the first time any US. government people had seen him in person since the coup began. I was the only one present to interpret, and I did so as Ambassador Strauss and Gorbachev greeted one another and talked.

The tension, the excitement, the sorrow and the joy of the event were palpable. When Strauss and I climbed up onto the stage, I looked out over a vast sea of faces: 400 thousand people packed the square and the streets beyond. Millions of other Soviet citizens were watching on television. And there in the front row, beyond the Orthodox priests and the rabbis, sat the bereaved mothers and families of the three dead boys.

I was profoundly moved by every aspect of that moment. It affected me deeply, personally and professionally. As I stood on that stage and spoke in Russian to those families and to the people of the Soviet Union, delivering a message through the Ambassador from the President of the United States, I realized that I had been blessed with something here - blessed with an opportunity that far exceeded anything I might ever have reasonably hoped for in my profession. For an Irish-American boy from Storm Lake, Iowa, standing on that flat bed truck at that moment in history - believe me, it was an overwhelming experience.

It was Shakespeare who wrote that "the readiness is all." It occurred to me that everything in my experience seemed to have been preparing me for that one transcendent moment. The fundamental reason I was present, the only reason I was equal to the task, was that I had studied and learned a foreign language. All the endless, laborious hours of conjugating verbs, declining nouns, memorizing vocabulary - suddenly it all made perfect sense. Being there that day was my destiny manifest. What can anyone do in life except get ready7 You prepare for a moment, and when it comes at last - if it comes at all - you know at least that you are ready. That's the way it was for Hamlet, and it is the same today for generals and presidents - and students of foreign languages.

One reason I share some of this personal experience with you is that it leads back to our earlier question: What can be done to convince our society of the utility of acquiring a foreign language and being knowledgeable of other cultures?

Well, you can take my experience as an example - and toss it right out the window. In terms of the task before us, citing my case is misleading and thus dangerous.

Why? Because a mistake we consistently make is that we try to promote foreign language acquisition as a ticket to a job, and more often than not to a glamorous job - and though I agree that having a front-row seat as I have had at many of the historic events of our time is a glamorous, heady prospect, especially as far as foreign language-related occupations go, my case is probably as typical as Cinderella's. I have been very fortunate. Much of what has happened to me in my career has been entirely serendipitous. And, of course, I've only told you about the bright spots. I haven't said a word about the times when U.S.-Soviet relations were so bad that there were no exchanges - and no work for interpreters or about the drawers full of rejection letters I received over the years when I was trying to find work inother fields in which I had little direct experience and where nobody would give me a chance. The truth of the matter is, job opportunities in the language field have always more often than not been rather slim. This is something all of us here should be aware of, as should students, when we urge them to acquire and master a foreign language. The guarantee of a good job and a steady income, based on foreign language proficiency alone, is risky.

If emphasizing possible job opportunities is one of the wrong methods to use in promoting the study of foreign languages, so too is the approach which perhaps unconsciously fosters an impression of intellectual elitism connected with foreign language study. When I was in college, being a language major was regarded as an impractical, highly intellectual pursuit. I was always unhappy about the perception of the almost effete nature of advanced-level language study, as though it were an endeavor reserved for the intellectually privileged. That misconception is exacerbated when language study is almost always linked exclusively to the pursuit of art, literature, and history. Acquisition of foreign languages need not be the private domain of intellectuals and aficionados of poetry and belies lettres.

Such a perception helps foster a belief widespread among Americans that most of us just do not have the knack or the talent to master a foreign language. Of course, this is simply not true. We know that in many regions of the world, acquiring a foreign language is a normal part of growing up and surviving, economically, socially, politically. In my travels to other countries, I have always been excited to see how many people, even those of humble origins and modest means, speak one or more foreign languages. That is not the result of sitting long @ hunched over dictionaries in a university library. Language acquisition is a normal part of their everyday lives. The process often begins when they are children and continues through their adult lives. Listening, observing, communicating, learning the ways of another people. Just as counterproductive to promoting language study is emphasis on the alarmist, "language gap" approach - the greater proficiency of the Japanese or the Europeans versus the woeful underachievements of American students. Icited some statistics earlier. But like any statistics, they may not tell the whole story. Traditionally, in America we have simply not sufficiently appreciated the need to master foreign languages. Until very recently, the melting pot effect in this country meant that the burden of language acquisition fell to the immigrants, who were expected to become American as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

But that does not mean that this tradition has to continue. It is already changing. And it must change, to keep pace with the rest of the world beyond our shores. There is no reason why, with good instruction and, I would emphasize, with improved opportunities for reinforcing what they have learned, that American students cannot demonstrate as much talent at foreign language learning as any Swiss or Nigerian or Indian student.

Furthermore, one other particularly significant aspect of the difficulty of promoting language learning derives from the fact that it is often popularly viewed as an end in itself, something separate and apart from the rest of the school curriculum. This is a wrong notion, and clearly not constructive. Foreign language acquisition must be made an integral part of the school curriculum, not treated as an afterthought. Foreign language courses cannot always be among the first things cut when the budget is tight. It should not be that only after everyone has gotten the reading, the writing and the arithmetic down, only then can we bother with the folderol of acquiring foreign language skills. Language learning should be thought of as a basic skill of communication, just as reading and writing are. The "three Rs," yes; and why not in more than one language?

Now, of course, the rebuttal to a proposal like this is easy enough to see coming. When SAT scores are failing nationwide, when some school districts in our inner cities are struggling with the task of just getting students to school safely and then keeping them there, when there are teenagers in some high schools who are functional illiterates, how can we possibly afford the luxury of foreign language instruction? But that's just it: acquiring foreign language skills ought not be perceived among us as a luxury. So far, I've been pretty good at pointing out what might be the wrong way to promote foreign language learning: the guarantee of a glamorous, high-paying job, the intellectual angle, the "language-gap" argument. Each of these approaches may have some validity as a motivational device, however, alone and even together they are inadequate as a means of truly inspiring significant numbers of American students to study and master a foreign language - or of convincing the populace at large to embrace language acquisition as a value in its belief system.

Establishing the acquisition of a foreign language as a national priority in our country: we've identified the point on the horizon. Now, how do we get there? It may be a long, hard trek.

To do this, we need a national campaign - a campaign to influence and encourage acceptance of a value in our belief system that is present, but that is not yet widely or deeply enough held. There are many recent examples of how beliefs in our country have changed when a message was clearly articulated. With much time and effort, campaigns like that have been successful, e.g., the antismoking campaign, using safety belts in our cars, AIDS awareness, lowering cholesterol levels in our diet. Has there ever been a large-scale print or TV campaign of public service messages to promote belief in the utility of foreign language acquisition?

Foreign language skills are a tool - and though, like arithmetic, they may not be extensively used by everyone, for many they can be an essential tool. And those skills can be used to construct a more promising future, and not just for the students themselves, but for the entire country: to help assure a prominent place in the world community for coming generations of Americans.

And just as no single tool can construct anything very elaborate, foreign language skills have to be used in tandem with other skills with math, science, business, and other native language communications skills. Isn't this really just common sense? The integration of foreign language study with the other skills and other disciplines taught in our grade schools, our high schools and our universities: this is the way to give each student the widest range of opportunities, the greatest chance for success.

Foreign language skills may never involve the student in multimillion dollar, international business deals; they may never involve him or her in global research projects in science or math; or get him or her to a U.S.-Soviet Summit meeting. But even if all foreign language skills are able to do is to allow the individual sometime to establish human contact with another culture, to give him or her the chance of understanding and appreciating, on a personal level, another way of living in the world - then this alone justifies all the effort of teaching and of learning those skills. Those skills are tools that can be used to expand the internal horizons of the individual. And that in turn must inevitably lead to the expansion of our society's horizons - greater understanding, greater tolerance, a greater chance for peace and prosperity, worldwide, and at home, too, in every community in this country.

It is one thing to evangelize you, the foreign language teachers of America, as to the necessity and utility of this belief, it is quite another task to convince the American public at large. But that is what has to be done. And so I urge you: If you truly believe, as I do, that the acquisitionof foreign language skills is of such value that it must become a national priority, then use this conference as a starting point. Work together, in your organization and with similar organizations. Start brainstorming. Formulate strategies for changing the public perception, for insinuating into the American psyche the need for strengthening the belief in our culture's system of values that foreign language acquisition should be made a national priority, now.

You're in a good city to make a start. A national campaign is what's needed, and were only a few blocks away from some of the people who can help transform convictions into reality.

So, if the readiness is truly all, let's be ready. Let's be prepared for the chance to help our society be better ready for the future. And let's give our students all the tools they need to speak with, and learn from, the rest of the world.

From the Foreign Language Annals, 25, No 2, 1992
Dr. William Hopkins, former veteran diplomatic interpreter with the U.S. State Department, will deliver the keynote address at ACTFL'91 (Saturday, November 23, 10: 00 a.m.). Dr. Hopkins, who grew up in Storm Lake, Iowa, began his Russian language studies at the University of Iowa and was the primary U.S. interpreter for both Presidents Reagan and Bush at the Soviet/American Summits conducted over the past few years in Geneva. Hopkins began interpreting for the State Department in 1972, and in addition to the Presidents, he worked with Secretaries of State George Schultz and James Baker and did extensive work at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. In 1982, Hopkins became a full-time member of the State Department's staff of 20 interpreters, five of whom specialized in Russian. He was branch chief until recently. He was a Fulbright Scholar and also taught languages at Indiana University and Middlebury College. He is a charming and articulate spokesperson for the study of foreign languages and its critical importance in the world.