In the News

Language Learning and National Security

Karl W. Eikenberry
Inside Higher Ed

When I was a student in Nanjing University in China in the early 1980s, a professor there told me that if I spoke no Chinese at all, I would always be a metaphorical window shopper in his city, admiring the goods on display from a distance on the street. But after investing the time and effort to become proficient at Mandarin and knowledgeable of Chinese custom, I would be invited by the shop owner to come inside and enter the room where his real treasures were kept.

I have had many occasions since then to reflect on the wisdom of my professor’s advice and encouragement. As the deputy commander of the UN security force in Panmunjom in Korea, defense attaché to China, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan and the United States ambassador in Kabul, I have found myself at the intersection of cultures and languages -- often when the stakes were much higher than a mere trip to the local shop. Yet the lesson has withstood the test of time and experience: a working knowledge of another culture, its language and norms, its history and ideals, is often the difference between a failed and a successful mission.

Over the past three years, I have been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on Language Learning, a group convened in response to a request from a bipartisan group of congressional representatives and senators. Our final report, “America’s Languages,” provides ample evidence to support the notion that proficiency in English, although crucial to our global success, “is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world, nor the needs of individual citizens who interact with other peoples and cultures more than at any other time in human history.”

For all of these reasons, I am particularly concerned that the budget recently released by the White House proposes elimination or drastic cuts to international education and study abroad programs, many of which were already compromised by the previous administration. The president’s budget proposes eliminating the funding for language education in the Department of Education, which had already been cut by 43 percent in the Obama administration. It recommends a 55 percent cut to the exchange programs in the Department of State. While a modest increase of 3 percent is proposed for the Defense Language Institute, the president’s budget also proposes a 20 percent increase in enrollments. These and other proposed cuts threaten our national language readiness -- which, as we saw in the aftermath of the attacks of 2001, is a significant factor in our ability to respond to international challenges.

Although they are saddled with abstract names which make them seem distant from the concerns of people outside the Washington Beltway, Title VI of the 1958 National Defense Education Act and the educational exchange programs in the Department of State are critical to our nation’s ability to teach languages vital to our national security and economic growth. The Language Resource Centers and the National Resource Centers funded through Title VI help support more than 20 vital Department of Defense language programs, foreign area officer training for the U.S. Army and advanced language education for federal employees in dozens of government agencies. Ultimately, if such programs are cut, we will be less able to communicate with and understand our allies and potential adversaries abroad, and would be severely hindered in our negotiations.

Until recently, there has been strong presidential and congressional support for these programs -- from the administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy through the George W. Bush White House years, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld helped lead the National Security Language Initiative, an unprecedented effort to ensure adequate levels of funding. These leaders knew that market forces alone will not attract young talent to study critical-need languages, including those of strategically vital and unstable regions like Southwest and Central Asia.

Throughout my career, I have been keenly aware of both the immediate operational and strategic value of language skills and cultural knowledge. These programs, which represent a small and vanishing percentage of the federal budget, need to be funded. We cannot afford to become a nation of window shoppers.


Karl Eikenberry is an Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow, director of the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative, at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and a professor of practice at Stanford University. He served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from May 2009 until July 2011.

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Commission on Language Learning

Paul LeClerc