America's Languages Matter
By: Dr. Bill Rivers, Executive Director, Joint National Committee for Languages
In America, languages matter. Wherever you're from, whatever language you speak, whatever language your ancestors had, and whatever you want for yourself and your children and students, you feel this intuitively, deeply: languages matter. In the America of the 21st Century, this means that every child must have the opportunity to master English, in order to fully participate in the economic and civic life of our nation; that every child who speaks or hears another language at home must have the opportunity to learn that language as well; that every child, regardless of his or her background, must have opportunities to learn other languages beyond English and beyond the language of the hearth and home. We can list all of the individual and societal benefits of bilingualism and biliteracy – among them, greater lifelong cognitive function, increased employability, enhanced empathy, higher academic achievement – but for those of us who have the blessing and the burden of more than one language or culture, these are secondary. What's more important is that we live in two (or more) worlds, seeing the advantages and foibles of both, the inherent value in each of our cultures and worldviews.
For my adult life, this passion has defined my career. I've done this as a classroom teacher of Russian, as an interpreter and translator, as a researcher and administrator, in higher education, the intelligence community, and the private sector. For the past five years, I've had the privilege of working with some 140 organizations and companies to lobby the "powers that be" in Washington, DC, to protect funding for language programs and to improve the conditions for language professionals – teachers, interpreters, translators, and others. As a speaker of French and Russian, descended from Irish and Quebecois immigrants, languages have been part of my family's history and livelihood for three generations. One vital part of our work in DC, and with the business and philanthropic community in the US, is the promotion of Dual Language Immersion. That's the subject of my next column – how do we harness the real, diverse, and messy grass-roots support for Dual Language Immersion?