Russian in the United States (Revisited): Language Policy and the Less Commonly Taught Languages

Traditionally, language policy is concerned with status (the selection of national, official, and minority languages) and corpus (the accepted and promulgated form of those languages). Recently, particularly in English-speaking countries, there have arisen policy efforts aimed at the promotion of foreign languages in government and in the educational system. While domestic needs lie at the base of status and corpus planning, foreign language policy is driven primarily by global demands inevitably related to national security in addition to the rather poorly articulated educational benefits involved. A framework for defining language policy in the area of national security needs has been proposed, which distinguishes immediate supply and demand from their more strategic counterparts of capacity and need. Capacity is defined in terms of the strengths of language fields (base structures, infrastructure, and flagship programs) as well as the involvement of all the sectors providing instruction and services: academic, federal, private, heritage, and overseas. National need, on the other hand, comprises political/military, social, and economic domains.

Over the past decade, the capacity underlying the supply of Russian language expertise in the United States has weakened significantly in the academic sector, as enrollments have plummeted and many programs have been discontinued, including some of the nation’s flagship Russian programs. Nevertheless, the strategic need for Russian in the United States is as strong or even stronger than ever before. Equally disturbing is the fact that this situation is not unique to Russian, as this is only part of the crisis in foreign language learning and teaching in the United States.

Language study in the educational system in the United States is in great danger of either being basically ignored or being identified with the teaching and learning of Spanish. While addressing the first issue and making the case for language in the educational system on a par with math and science is far from simple in this culture, this paper is concerned more with justifying the diversity of language offerings in general and of Russian in particular.

The diversity argument rests on both the national security and educational justification for foreign language policy. If there is a legitimate educational argument for the value of the language learning experience in a liberal education, it surely includes the notion of appreciating the other, that is, an understanding of culture and its impact. This being the case, it is hard to see why educational institutions would not advocate and support the exposing of students to truly foreign languages instead of being content to exposing them minimally to the cognate languages of Western Europe. In addition, an emerging major justification for diversity in language study is existence of multiple heritage communities who feed the need to transmit their values to succeeding generations through the maintenance of language abilities. (This very strong support for languages in our ethnic communities can be a major force in any attempt to move the primary locus for language study down from the university level to the secondary and even the elementary level in our educational system.)

Turning now from the education arguments to the pure national security justification for Russian and other LCTLs, we can caste the arguments on a specification of these needs for cross-cultural communication. This very pragmatic justification rests on the view of U. S. national security as requiring our nation’s involvement in virtually all the areas of the world, thus entailing a competence in languages from all over the world. These needs are traditionally classified as political/military, social, and economic. For Russian the specification of such needs reveal its status as a regional as well as country-specific language.

The disjunction between the declining student enrollments in Russian and the nation’s expanding educational and security needs reveals a dysfunctional language market in the United States. This dysfunction is, and should be, the target for federal policy, given the fact that it impinges on the education of all Americans as well as the immediate and strategic security interests of the nation. The primary federal intervention in this area is Title VI of the HEA and its accompanying Fulbright-Hays legislation. While these statutes and the programs they support have begun to strengthen its traditional focus on the LCTLs, there is much more that can and should be done to ensure that Russian and the rest of the LCTLs will survive and prosper in the United States. The assistance should be targeted to supporting the architecture of the fields themselves, thereby guaranteeing that these languages will be taken by more and more students in more and more institutions to a higher level of proficiency. Our nation’s status in the age of globalization depends on this policy and the capacity it ensures.