A shortage of foreign language skills in America is a critical problem in the eyes of academics and government officials concerned about the nation's security in this new era of global terrorism.
But the question of which languages should be taught is not easy to answer.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Arabic, Farsi, Pashtu and other languages of the Middle East have been recognized as critical to national security, said J. David Edwards, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages, an umbrella group of scholarly and professional groups.
But, he said, "We don't want to slight Somali, other African languages and other areas that can become political hot spots overnight." More than a hundred languages could be useful in some capacity around the world, he said.
Unfortunately, at the higher education level, funding for less commonly taught languages "is very, very inadequate," Edwards said. And there is a shortage of language teachers in the United States as skilled speakers are drawn to other jobs in government and business.
If people become very proficient in a language, "then there are a number of really good job opportunities for them," said Robert Slater, director of the National Security Education Program.
The program, a part of the Department of Defense, funds language education and study-abroad opportunities for college students.
The need is great, experts say, to help fight foreign criminal activity, international terrorism and drug trafficking. It also can contribute to U.S. economic success around the world, they say.
"You can't understand other cultures without at least some understanding of their languages," Slater said.