On Capitol Hill for Language Advocacy Day: A Conversation with Dr. William P. Rivers

On Thursday, February 16th, more than 150 language experts from across the U.S. will descend on Capitol Hill to lobby for languages.

Dr. William P. Rivers, the Executive Director of the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL-NCLIS), the organization that hosts Language Advocacy Day, shares why he and hundreds of others believe that foreign languages need advocacy and how any concerned citizen can advocate for languages in their community.

What exactly is Language Advocacy Day and how long has it been running?

Language Advocacy Day brings language experts — teachers, researchers, translators, interpreters, company owners, and leaders of language associations — to Washington, D.C., every year to lobby the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch for the funding of language research, development, and education, and better conditions for the language industry. The event has been around for four years; before 2013, it was the Delegate Assembly of the Joint National Committee on Languages.

What kind of groups will descend on Capitol Hill for Language Advocacy Day?

Every kind of language organization in the U.S. — from large associations such as the American Council on the Teaching of Language, state-level organizations such as the Texas Foreign Language Association, to language-specific organizations like the American Council of Teachers of Russian.

We will also have researchers and faculty from institutions of higher education, such as the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey and the University of Maryland Center for Modern Languages, and representatives from the language industry, such as Certified Languages International and Rosetta Stone.

Why do foreign languages need advocacy to begin with?

If we don’t make the case for ourselves, nobody will do it for us! Languages are still seen as a nice-to-have, when in reality, they are essential to national security and vital to economic growth.

What is the most important takeaway that you would like advocates to provide to members of Congress and Senate and their respective staffers?

Language matters!

What are the most pressing issues confronting language education in the U.S. today? How can we overcome them, in your view?

The erosion of foreign language enrollments in higher education and the rapid expansion of language immersion and other K-12 programs.

The first issue is a negative, requiring serious efforts to change curricula to make languages relevant to students and institutions of higher education. The second issue — the growth in K-12 language enrollments of 41 percent over the past decade — means that we need more diverse and more highly qualified teachers, among other things. However, there’s no “magic bullet” — we will always need to make the case for languages.

JNCL often emphasizes the importance of languages for Americans in business, science, government, and international relations. How can foreign languages support the national interests of the U.S.?

There have been multiple Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports in the past fifteen years about the language deficit in the Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense. That hasn’t changed substantially — language is vital to intelligence work and diplomacy.

We also see tremendous growth in the demand for employees with language skills, as companies face multilingual, multicultural clienteles at home and abroad.

For those who can’t attend Language Advocacy Day or are not part of a JNCL member organization, how can they advocate for world language learning in the U.S.?

Sign up for our news brief! That way, they’ll get our policy alerts, which ask individuals to send messages to their Congressional delegation. We sent more than 20,000 messages to the Hill last year. Follow us on social media (Twitter, Facebook) and be active!

Is there anything else you’d like the average American to know about language advocacy and why it might matter to them?

Language matters: Language is central to responsible 21st-century citizenship, we can teach languages better than before, and there are jobs out there for people with language proficiency.

About the Joint National Committee for Languages

The Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) is a nonprofit organization representing 130 member organizations in the language enterprise and advocating for the field in the Nation’s capital. JNCL’s mission is to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to learn English and at least one other language.

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We believe that foreign languages and international experience are critical for the next generation of global leaders #languagematters.

Language Matters

The #LANGUAGEMATTERS campaign is a movement to ensure the next generation of our global leaders come equipped with the critical language and cultural skills needed to achieve peace and mutual understanding in the 21st-century.

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