UC Berkeley’s chancellor appointed to national commission on language education

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UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks was appointed to a newly formed commission that is a nationwide effort to examine and improve the state of foreign-language education in the country.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences formed the Commission on Language Learning in response to a bipartisan request from eight Congress members, who asked the academy to study and investigate how to improve language education in order to prepare Americans for an increasingly globalized world, according to the academy’s press release.

Dirks joins eight other commissioners from around the country, and the recruitment of commissioners is expected to continue until September.

The commission is the first of its kind since 1979, according to academy spokesperson Dave Nuscher. The commission will conduct research, hold meetings and collaborate with scholarly and professional organizations nationwide, and it expects to make final recommendations about language education within 18 months, according to Nuscher.

“Commissioners are chosen because they have expertise in the field in one way or another,” Nuscher said. “It’s also very important for the commission to have someone from a large public university like UC Berkeley.”

Michael Dirda, from the Chancellor’s Office, said Dirks is joining the commission because “he believes language instruction is going to be a critical area as we increasingly live, work and communicate with people from around the world.”

Dan Davidson, a fellow commissioner and president of the American Councils for International Education, said the last time such a body existed was during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, when there was also a need — just like today — for better language education.

The crisis, along with other international concerns, raised the question of whether the nation was doing “an adequate job to prepare Americans to defend (the nation’s) strategic interests abroad” and led to calls for improvements in foreign-language education, according to Davidson.

Davidson said that although English is the common language of the world, knowing just English will “only work in a certain level of transaction” with nonnative English speakers. To develop trust and personal rapport, which is often necessary to reach complicated agreements, one needs to understand local beliefs, cultures and customs that are “embedded in languages,” Davidson said.

Susi Lopez, a Spanish teacher at Berkeley High School, said she thinks forming the commission is a good and “timely” idea. Not only does learning a new language open doors and allow one to understand other cultures better, but being multilingual is also beneficial to the brain, Lopez said.

Lopez said that most Berkeley High students take at least one year of language classes and that the Berkeley Unified School District does a good job teaching foreign languages.

“People in different schools across the district care about making language education accessible to students,” Lopez said.

Contact Natchapol Praditpetchara at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @natchapolp.