OPE: Office of Postsecondary Education
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International Education Programs Service

Universities Address U.S. Needs in Less Commonly Taught Languages

Archived Information

What do graduate students studying Serbo-Croatian in Texas, Arabic in Utah, Xhosa in Florida, and Chinese in Kansas have in common? They all have received fellowships from a Federal program designed to help meet our country’s need for foreign area and language experts. During the 2002-2003 academic year, these students were among 1,631 graduate students at more than 50 universities around the country who were awarded Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships to learn 103 less commonly taught languages.

Training in less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) at U.S. universities has come a long way in the past 45 years. In 1959, authorized by legislation that the Congress enacted following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the first Federally-funded foreign language fellowships were awarded to only 171 students to study six languages that the U.S. Commissioner of Education had designated as critical — Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi-Urdu, Portuguese, and Russian.1

Impressive Results of U.S. Department of Education and University Cooperation

A long-lasting, productive partnership between the Federal government and U.S. universities has created an unparalleled capacity to teach both foreign languages and “area studies” about societies around the world - covering all continents and more than 200 of the less commonly taught languages.

Two U.S. Department of Education (ED) programs for (a) National Resource Centers (NRCs) and (b) FLAS fellowships under Title VI of the Higher Education Act (HEA) are investing nearly $55 million annually in 131 university centers that focus on different world areas and international themes. These Federal grants have leveraged approximately 20 times that amount from universities and foundations.

The results of these joint investments are impressive:

  • The National Resource Centers taught 130 LCTLs in 2001-02 and have the capacity to teach 95 more languages, using native or other fluent speakers, instructional materials, and pedagogically-trained supervisors.2
  • These Federally-funded centers are located at 55 universities in 27 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Students at these centers are studying languages ranging from Pashto (a language of Afghanistan and Pakistan); to Setswana, Sesotho, Xhosa, Zulu, and Afrikaans (five of South Africa’s 11 official languages); to Tagalog (a language spoken by 17 million people in the Philippines).
  • In the late 1990s, 81 percent of all graduate student enrollments nationwide in the least commonly taught languages were at institutions supported by the Title VI program.3
  • Specialized courses are available in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian for conversation, as well as for business, legal uses, and for understanding contemporary culture and politics and the media. Engineering students can take specialized courses in Chinese, Japanese, and Russian. While advanced students can have the satisfaction of reading Dostoevsky and Chekhov in the original Russian or Cervantes and Neruda in the original Spanish, the common perception that advanced language courses at universities focus only on literature is no longer true.

The National Need for Training in Diverse Languages

Foreign language specialists both inside and outside of government are concerned that the nation’s need for fluent speakers of foreign languages is not yet being met. During the Cold War period, when the government’s support of foreign language and area studies began under the National Defense Education Act, 30,000 or more U.S. university students took Russian courses each year.4 Following the September 11, 2001 attack, Americans once again became more aware of the need to become proficient in diverse languages, and the number of students studying Arabic, in particular, have soared.

Within the Federal government alone, more than 70 agencies have foreign language needs, and one agency reported to the Congress that it needed 30,000 personnel with knowledge of 80 different languages. A January 2002 report of the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that shortfalls in personnel with language training "adversely affected agency operations and hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counter-terrorism, and diplomatic efforts."5

University National Resource Centers Contribute to Meeting the National Need

The Title VI National Resource Centers at institutions of higher education are very important resources in meeting these needs. More than 60% of the LCTL enrollments reported by the NRCs were in the 10 languages deemed to be "critical" by the U.S. Department of Defense National Security Education Program (NSEP). For example, in 2001-02, there were approximately 5,580 students of Japanese reported, 5,050 of Chinese, 2,205 of Russian, 2,045 of Arabic, 1,525 of Korean, 840 of Hindi, and 800 of Persian. (The other languages with smaller enrollments were Turkish, Urdu, and Pashto.) Furthermore, the largest number of Title VI FLAS fellowships were awarded to people studying Arabic.

Taken together, the TitleVI-supported centers offer about two-and-a-half times as many contemporary LCTLs as do the Defense Language Institute (DLI) and Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which together offer instruction in 77 different LCTLs.

As part of their broad outreach missions, NRCs work directly with the government to help meet foreign language and area studies needs of U.S. government employees. Some examples include:

  • The U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Program continues to send its officers to Title VI centers for their Masters degrees in language and area studies training and has done so since the inception of the FAO program three decades ago.
  • The U.S. Air Force relies on the resources of Title VI centers, most recently for course materials on the Turkmen language [of Turkmenistan].
  • A Title VI center developed language training materials for Vietnamese, Tagalog, Indonesian, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean learners for the National Security Agency and Department of Defense. 6

Universities Use Array of U.S. Department of Education Programs Efficiently

The NRCs for the Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia world regions hold joint summer intensive language institutes that provide the equivalent of one year’s instruction in six weeks. These institutes are available to graduate students, non-traditional students, government officials, and faculty members. These institutes make efficient use of Federal funding for LCTL instruction, particularly for very uncommon languages for which there would be few students enrolled at any single institution.

Grant funds from ED support universities in offering intensive language learning abroad, as well. The Department’s Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad (GPA) program annually funds 15 intensive language programs. Recently, U.S. students on GPAs have participated in advanced language training in Egypt, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Tanzania, Turkey, and South Africa.

Several Title VI programs offer seamless support to help create the next generations of international experts. One example is the preparation received by a new faculty member in medical anthropology who will make major contributions to understanding disease and health in West Africa where HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other tropical disease are rampant. This young woman benefitted from the international studies programs at her small college, which the college had built with a Title VI Undergraduate Foreign Language and Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language (UISFL) grant. Already proficient in French, she spent a Junior Year Abroad in Senegal, a moderate Muslim state, and was introduced to the predominant national language, Wolof. During her graduate work at a Midwestern university supported by a Title VI NRC grant, she was awarded Title VI FLAS fellowships for Africa. This allowed her to study Wolof and to learn from faculty with expertise in medical anthropology and in Senegal. Because of her Title VI area studies and language training, she was awarded both an ED Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad grant and a National Science Foundation research grant. Now, she is a leading U.S. expert on how West Africans use Western, Islamic, and traditional medical systems to cope with disease and to improve health.

Effective Modes of Instruction in Least Commonly Taught Languages Vary

Foreign language specialists often express concern that not enough students are becoming fluent in hard-to-learn foreign languages. In fact, many of the students of LCTLs at NRCs are continuing to advanced levels. For example, one-quarter or more of the students of East Asian and Eastern European languages are continuing their language study to an advanced level, as are 15 percent or more of the students of Latin American, Middle Eastern, and South Asian LCTLs.

How LCTLs are taught may vary. Some LCTL students are in traditional, "instructor-fronted" classrooms, when there are many students enrolled in a particular language. For example, the University of Washington teaches courses in technical Japanese designed for engineering majors as part of a special Master’s degree program. The University of Michigan offers courses in Arabic for use in business, modern media, and colloquial conversation in Egyptian Arabic and Levantine Arabic (spoken in Jordan). The University of Indiana teaches many courses in languages of Inner Asia, supported by ED grants for both a National Resource Center and a Language Resource Center.

Other students of the most rare languages, such as more than 30 African languages, often are being well-served by tutorial instruction. For example, in 2001-02, Michigan State University and Indiana University were the only universities in the country that taught Oromo (Ethiopia) and Setswana (Botswana), respectively, to small numbers of learners. Similarly, University of California, Los Angeles tutored a few students in Guarani (Paraguay), and Harvard tutored a few students in Manchu (China). In situations such as these, support from Title VI enables NRC and FLAS centers to offer their graduate students vital language training that prepares them for their research abroad. Furthermore, ED ensures the quality of teaching in each language for FLAS fellowships.

The tutorial mode of instruction often is even more successful than the instructor-fronted mode. This method pairs highly motivated graduate students with trained native-speaking tutors under the supervision of a faculty linguist or specialist in second language acquisition so that the content and pace are aimed specifically at the needs of one or a small number of students.

In addition to providing support for university instruction in LCTLs and graduate fellowships, ED has funded the creation of more than 800 texts, dictionaries, grammars, and other instructional materials on LCTLs. These materials, supported by grants from the Title VI International Research and Studies Program, are used at universities, Federal language institutes, and at intensive institutes for American students in the U.S. and abroad.

In sum, U.S. universities have been able to significantly expand and deepen their training of the next generations of specialists in area studies and a myriad of foreign languages with their own increase investment and the critical support of ED under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

1Scarfo, Richard (1998). "The History of Title VI and Fulbright-Hays." In John N. Hawkins, Carlos Manuel Haro, Miriam A. Kazanjian, Gilbert W. Merkx, and David Wiley (Eds.), International Education in the New Global Era: Proceedings of a National Policy Conference on the Higher Education Act, Title VI, and Fulbright-Hays Programs (pp. 23-26). Los Angeles, CA: International Studies and Overseas Programs. At: http://www.isop.ucla.edu/pacrim/title6/Over2-Scarfo.pdf (accessed June 24, 2004).

2This data and other statistics cited in the article for which no other source is given are from a study conducted by The e-LCTL Initiative, a project of Michigan State University with regional coordinators from 11 other universities that was funded by a grant from the ED International Research and Studies Program. Data came from universities’ proposals for NRC and FLAS funding submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in November 2002.

3Brecht, Richard D. and William P. Rivers, 2000. Language and National Security for the 21st Century: The Role of Title VI / Fulbright-Hays in Supporting National Language Capacity. College Park, MD: The National Foreign Language Center, page 45. (Brecht and Rivers’s definition of least commonly taught languages excluded Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian as well as the "most commonly taught languages" of French, German, Spanish, and Italian.)

4 Freedman, Samuel G. (2004, June 16). "After Sputnik, It was Russian; After 9/11, Should it be Arabic?" New York Times.

5 General Accounting Office, January 2002. Foreign Languages: Human Capital Approach Needed to Correct Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls, page 2.

6 "The Higher Education Act, Title VI and the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, Section 102(b)(6), International Education and Foreign Language Studies," testimony by David Ward, President, American Council on Education on Behalf of the Coalition for International Education, Submitted to the House Subcommittee on Labor, HHS and Education Appropriations U.S. House of Representatives, April 23, 2002.



Last Modified: 01/21/2011