Language Initiative

In Morocco, schoolchildren have to learn a second language (French) by the third grade, and a third language (English) by the tenth. World geography is part of the standard high school curriculum. The radio plays American music, movie theaters show American movies, and satellite dishes are ubiquitous, which means everyone can watch news from Al-Jazeera as well as CNN.

And yet, Morocco, like the rest of the Arab world, is considered by the sitting administration to be so ignorant about American culture and its values that its citizens must be educated through programs like Karen Hughes’ public diplomacy initiative. This involves spending money on TV, radio and even print magazines that promote America to Arab youths. The program isn’t much of a success–the print mag, a monthly lifestyle magazine called Hi, has been shelved for now.

So when I heard that George Bush wants to teach foreign languages (including Arabic) to American schoolchildren I was, frankly, stunned. Wow–we’re actually going to teach kids here about other languages?!! What a great way to tell them about the rest of the world. But I should have known better. Because the goal isn’t to teach kids another language, but rather:

Bush portrayed the enhancement of foreign-language skills as a way of enlarging U.S. capacity to spread democracy. “You can’t convince people unless you can talk to them,” he said. (…) “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.

So the goal of learning the language isn’t to learn something about a different culture, but merely to communicate well enough with the rest of the world to convince them to get on with the program already.

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