These are dark days indeed for erstwhile teachers of Urdu: Nationwide, only about a third of the student population even bothers to take language courses. Worse, a mere 1 percent of high school students study foreign languages other than Spanish, German, and French. This is particularly bad news to Silver Spring resident Richard Brecht, professor of Russian at the University of Maryland and director of the National Council of Organizations of Less Commonly Taught Languages, which represents teachers of everything from Arabic to Yoruba. If Brecht were king, you’d still bone up on Spanish, which he calls “our second language.” But as for French—studied by a quarter of American students decades after its reign as global common language ended—Brecht suggests we also find our students some, uh, autres langues.

In this country, learning German, Spanish, and especially French has been an integral part of a liberal arts education for centuries. Do you think it is an outdated tradition?

French and German are part of our cultural tradition and part of the old Western European civilization. I’m not arguing for replacement: I’m arguing that we need to get a much broader perspective. Asia’s sitting out there, and Africa, and Eurasia—huge civilizations—and if we just stay in the Western mode, our students will never get that.

What languages do you consider to be the most important languages for American students to be studying?

Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian. These are crucial for economic, political, and social reasons. In 30 years, it could be Indonesian or Hindi—a lot of things could change. But right now, these are the ones. Except for Japanese, these languages cover a lot of speakers. A lot of speakers in a lot of countries speak Arabic, and Russian, and Chinese.

Is it realistic to expect the average high school student to tackle a language like Chinese?

It is a problem on a couple of levels. It takes two or three times as long to learn Russian or Chinese or Arabic. The second problem is we don’t have enough teachers—we don’t have enough teachers for the commonly taught languages, either. The third problem is it costs more money. But the major problem is that we spend most of our time and resources at the university level, when the rest of the world is dealing with it at the elementary and secondary level….Anybody can learn these languages. They do take more time, but it’s not ‘Are you smart enough?’; it’s basically ‘Are you patient enough?’” -Eddie Dean

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