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Northwestern expert calls for more language learning in U.S.

Professor Brian Edwards is working to improve language learning at all educational levels

EVANSTON - Brian Edwards, Crown Professor in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University, has been addressing what he calls the “paradox of American attitudes toward multilingualism” and is involved in a major congressional initiative to expand language learning in the United States.

Edwards participated in the writing of the first report on the nation’s language capacity in four decades. He has been involved with K-12 world language programs in Chicago and Evanston and has called for an increase in Arabic in Chicago Public Schools.

“At a time when some want us to retrench into an America-first nativism, it’s all the more important to celebrate our multiple connections to the world,” Edwards said.

Edwards was named to a commission formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in response to a bipartisan request by Congress to study the state of language learning in the United States. The commission’s report, “America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century,” was released in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 28, 2017. Edwards was in Washington for the release, which included a press conference at the National Press Club, a congressional briefing in the Rayburn Building and meetings with individual U.S. senators and members of Congress and their staff.

The United States lags behind most nations in the percentage of citizens with some knowledge of a second language, according to the report, which makes five major recommendations to improve the nation’s capacity in language learning.

“We have to cherish the multilingual aspects of Chicago as well as the United States generally,” said Edwards, a literature professor who has been a leader in transnational approaches to the field of American Studies. “It’s a crucial part of America’s greatness.” 

One of the biggest obstacles to improving access to language learning is a national shortage of qualified teachers, according to the February report. 

That is a subject that Edwards, the founding director of Northwestern’s Middle East and North African Studies Program (MENA), is well acquainted with.

In 2015, Edwards, led a project at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) that looked at the teaching of Arabic in Chicago Public Schools. He was lead author on a CCGA white paper entitled “Teaching Arabic in Our Schools: Globalizing Education for Chicago’s Next Generation.”

“Doing the research for that project, I got a closer look at the state of Arabic language teaching in Chicago Public Schools and was able to see firsthand the capacities and contexts in which Arabic teachers worked,” he said. “We wanted to understand how we could expand Arabic language instruction for the students in Chicago Public Schools.”

Edwards built on that experience when he led a proposal for Northwestern’s MENA program to host the Chicago Arabic Teachers’ Council, one of five such councils in the United States funded by the Qatar Foundation International (QFI).  

The Chicago Arabic Teachers’ Council at MENA (CATC@MENA) connects university-level educators with K-12 and private school teachers in innovative approaches to Arabic language learning and acquisition. The first symposium, hosted at Northwestern in December, brought nearly 100 K-12 Chicago-area Arabic teachers to Evanston for a day of sessions on language pedagogy and networking. Future meetings of the Chicago Arabic Teachers’ Council are scheduled for April 22 and May 20.

Taught by only 14 teachers, more than 3,000 students study Arabic in Chicago Public Schools, Edwards stressed. Many more study in weekend programs and in private Islamic schools across the city and in the suburbs.

Increasing the number of language teachers at all levels of language education was a key recommendation of both American Academy of Arts and Sciences reports.

Because of Northwestern’s relationship with the city of Chicago and its linguistically diverse communities, the MENA program is well-positioned to enhance the conversation on that finding, he said. 

MENA, an interdisciplinary program housed in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, offers an undergraduate major and minor, a Ph.D. certificate and courses in the four major languages of the Middle East: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish. MENA boasts 20 core and language faculty, plus an additional 14 faculty affiliates drawn from four of Northwestern’s schools.

Language is a central component in Northwestern’s global strategy task force, which released a report in November calling for enhanced global engagement, operations and scholarship.

Languages expand the way we think about the world, Edwards stressed.

“There is a deep relationship between language and who we are as humans,” he said.

More Key Findings of “The State of Language in the United States”:

  • The United States is home to more than 350 languages, and more than 65 million U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home, nearly 21 percent of the population, a number growing steadily since the 1970s.
  • The ability to understand, speak, read and write in world languages, in addition to English, is critical to success in business, research and international relations in the 21st century.
  • Language education should be seen as a national need similar to the way education in math or English is valued. 
  • A national strategy needs to be implemented to improve access to as many languages as possible for people of every region, ethnicity and socioeconomic background.

For more information, read Edwards’ op-eds on increasing Arabic language instruction in the Chicago Tribune and the Chronicle of Higher Education and his white paper published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Watch a 10-minute talk by him on this topic.

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