America’s Languages is the first national report on the state of language learning since the Carter administration. It was requested in late 2014 by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and congressmen and its recommendations continue to have bipartisan support. In 2017, that fact alone is newsworthy. But even in these hyperpartisan times, the word “bipartisan” makes the process of writing a national report sound easier than it is.
“Bipartisan” suggests that there are only two parties to satisfy in any national undertaking. While that may be a convenient shorthand for news anchors, it is a fiction—and woefully inadequate as a description of how public policy actually gets made. If there were only two parties to satisfy, everything would be much, much simpler.
As the American Academy’s Commission on Language Learning met to draft America’s Languages, it considered the needs of parents and teachers, schools and colleges, businesses and NGOs, scholars and scientists, Native Americans and immigrants, the State Department and the Defense Department, as well as the interests of Republicans and Democrats. In fact, partisan politics was the least important consideration. The Commission was much more interested in the needs of real people living in the real world, and America’s Languages tries to speak to them directly in their homes and their communities.
When the constituents are many and the stakes are high, policy becomes a writing exercise. America’s Languages articulates a national strategy for improving language education in the U.S. It does so by acknowledging the competing interests of all the parties that have a stake in a more fluent, multilingual America, and then fitting them together rhetorically, in words and images.
First Idea directed every step of the process. It wasn’t easy work. It was messy. Sometimes it was unpleasant. It required negotiation, persuasion, and compromise. But it was worth the effort. Ultimately, “bipartisanship” is a creative, literary enterprise.
Check this space for updates about the rollout of America’s Languages and details about its impact on federal, state, and local education policy.