Spending money wisely is the kindest gesture possible

I’m a strong proponent of students learning a foreign language. Not learning another language before graduating is the biggest regret I have from my school years, by far. I took four years of Latin, which was a waste. It’s a dead language, you know. That doesn’t matter, of course, because I remember so little of it. I followed that with two years of French, but I hated it so I mostly ignored what I learned. I certainly didn’t use it outside the classroom, so I don’t remember the scant words and phrases I collected. I still wonder why I didn’t learn German, which is what I always wanted to learn of the four languages my school system offered then. (Spanish being the obvious fourth.) Regardless, the fault lies with me because opportunities existed two decades ago when I started learning Latin and only my county’s taxpayers paid for my education. So I’m amused by this story:

President Bush announced plans yesterday to boost foreign-language study in the United States, casting the initiative as a strategic move to better engage other nations in combating terrorism and promoting freedom and democracy.

“This program is a part of a strategic goal, and that is to protect this country,” Bush said.

The plans, which represent an expansion of some programs and the start of a few others, aim to involve children in foreign-language courses as early as kindergarten while increasing opportunities for college and graduate school instruction. …

Much of the instruction is intended to focus not on the traditional European and Latin American languages that Americans have tended to study most, but on what the U.S. government has identified as languages “critical” for national security. These include Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi, among others.

I appreciate that learning languages such as Arabic and Chinese is a strategic goal. Indeed, it’s even wise. But this plan makes no sense. The federal government has no business funding this, since education is a local task. The government can certainly set incentives for learning necessary languages, not to mention retaining linguists rather than booting them for their sexuality, but this incentive is wrong.

I’ll explain more fully in a moment, but allow me to include these quotes as further foundation:

“When Americans learn to speak a language, learn to speak Arabic, those in the Arabic region will say, ‘Gosh, America’s interested in us. They care enough to learn how we speak,’ ” Bush said.

And …

But in a State Department briefing, officials sought to emphasize general growth rather than individual targets.

“We’re not setting the goals in terms of X number of individuals by Y number of years,” said Barry F. Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “Our goal is to start building capacity.”

What we’ll get out of this is a warm, fuzzy feeling and a new permanent government expenditure. What we won’t get is capable linguists filling defined needs. The government is circumventing the employment market as an incentive, instead promoting some lofty, elusive notion of strategic preparedness and patriotism.

Here’s an idea instead: make the reward for choosing a linguistics career comparable to the need. I’m sure there are plenty of creative ways to do that, but I suspect the uncreative salary is a good starter. Obviously that’s a little tweaked given the military versus private industry nature of government work, so my unimaginative method isn’t perfect. I concede the point. But the military has experience in solving recruiting shortages without resorting to presidential handouts for feel good public relations. Use them.

For a moment, humor me while I return to my opening paragraph. I didn’t retain either of the two languages I studied. Let me suggest why, now that I have fifteen years of hindsight into the experience. I didn’t care. I knew I wasn’t going to need either in college, thanks to exemptions. I knew I wouldn’t need either after college, thanks to my career expectations. So I took both to get a special stamp on my high school diploma. I doubt that’s really helped the United States since I graduated high school in 1991.

More importantly, I would’ve taken Russian in high school if offered, as the President now proposes, because that’s what I really wanted to take. I knew I wasn’t going to join the military, but I would’ve taken it to learn something interesting to me. Scarce taxpayer funding, with only a poorly-defined goal of “building capacity,” would’ve been wasted on someone only interested in learning. Maybe I would’ve used Russian one day while traveling through Eastern Europe, but the federal goverment never would’ve seen a return on that investment. Is that really the best method of allocating money to meet a strategic goal?

Unless President Bush wishes to imply that anyone who learns a language from these newly allocated funds will be subject to a service obligation to the United States government, this program is a worthless waste of tax dollars designed only to make the federal government larger and more influential in every area of life. That, or our leaders are just stupid. Whichever it is, I’m not reassured.