Maybe he should learn a first language?

November 23, 2007

Dear President Bush,

In a recent address on November 13th before an audience of business and community leaders in New Albany, Indiana, you referred to a “Portuguese as a second language” program as a “wasteful project.” PALCUS, the Portuguese American Leadership Council of the United States, representing more than 1 million Portuguese-Americans living in the US, writes to inform you that we find your remark to be highly offensive.

This attack on the teaching of Portuguese as a second language (read “foreign language” in secondary schools and colleges) comes as a surprise given that in January 2006, you recognized and stated the need for improved foreign language instruction in your support of the National Security Language Initiative combining the cooperation of the Departments of State, Defense, Education and National Intelligence. I believe your exact words were, “Learning a language -- somebody else's language is a kind gesture. It's a gesture of interest. It really is a fundamental way to reach out to somebody and say, I care about you. I want you to know that I'm interested in not only how you talk but how you live” A brief by Diana Powell of the Department of State (1/5/2007) states in support of this initiative that “An essential component of U.S. national security in the post-9/11 world is the ability to engage foreign governments and peoples, especially in critical regions, to encourage reform, promote understanding, convey respect for other cultures and provide an opportunity to learn more about our country and its citizens. To do this, we must be able to communicate in other languages, a challenge for which we are unprepared.”

As one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, Portuguese has long been recognized as an important language in the global community. It is now the most widely spoken language in South America, is a major lingua franca in Africa, and is an official language of nine countries spanning each of the earth’s inhabited continents. Portuguese is a strategic language for global communication as well as economic and political development.

In addition to the region of Macau, Portuguese is an official language of eight countries: Portugal (including the Azores and Madeira), Cape Verde, São Tomé e Príncipe, Guiné-Bissau, Angola, Brazil, Mozambique, and East Timor, some of which hold strategic importance in their relations with the United States. Brazil is poised to be the third largest world economy by 2010, and in 2004, the United States’ foreign direct investment in Brazil increased to approximately $30 billion. Angola is the second-largest trading partner of the United States in sub-Saharan Africa, largely because of its petroleum exports. On December 30, 2003, you approved the designation of Angola as eligible for tariff preferences under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). São Tomé also has discovered extensive oil reserves in waters shared with Nigeria. The United States will be well-served by a force of academically prepared bilingual and bi-literate professionals in a world where more than 200 million speak Portuguese on five continents.

In addition, Portugal has been a consistent friend and ally of the United States. Portugal was the first country to recognize the independence of the United States, and Abbé José Correia da Serra was a member of the international brotherhood of scientific philosophers so valued by Thomas Jefferson. Portugal is an ally in the Iraq war and home to the US Air Force Base in Lajes on the Azorean island of Terceira. Lajes Field is Portuguese Air Base (PAB) No. 4, where the 65th Air Base Wing is stationed by agreement with the Republic of Portugal and is the home of all U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy military forces in the Azores.

The program to which you referred for which funding was requested was grossly misinterpreted. The application for congressional support submitted to Congressman Kennedy for the Institute for Portuguese and Lusophone World Studies at Rhode Island College, Providence, RI, was intended to provide seed money for immediate needs for the newly launched program. Assistance in funding the program will provide students, 85 percent of who are heritage speakers of Portuguese, with the opportunity to advance their literacy skills in Portuguese, thereby serving the strategic, economic, and political interests of the United States in the Portuguese-speaking world. The Institute currently has no full time staff as it is unable to access the endowment fund currently under development for self-sufficient and sustainable support in the future. It relies on "in-kind" support from the College and fundraising events (dinners and raffles) from the volunteer support group, Friends of Portuguese Studies at RIC. More than 50% of students at Rhode Island College are first generation college students and commute to classes while working part-time and full-time jobs. More than 85% of students polled in the Portuguese Studies program at RIC are Luso-American (i.e. from Portugal, Cape Verde or Brazil) and most are heritage speakers of the language who would like to raise their Portuguese language skills to an advanced level to apply to professions in government, business, education, nursing and social services. Approximately 10% of Rhode Islanders claim Portuguese ancestry, the largest percentage of any state in the union. In addition to academic preparation in the Portuguese language and Lusophone culture, some initiatives of the Institute are: professional development for teachers of Portuguese; lecture series; cultural events that bring potential first generation college students onto campus; community outreach; adult education in Portuguese language; application of the Portuguese language to human services (i.e. medical, social services, education).; internationally recognized evaluation of Portuguese as a foreign language through an agreement with the University of Lisbon.

For more than 40 years, the United States has considered Portuguese a critical need language. In 1959, Congress enacted legislation that called for the first Federally-funded foreign language fellowships. These fellowships were awarded to only 171 students to study six languages that the U.S. Commissioner of Education had designated as critical — Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi-Urdu, Portuguese, and Russian. In a 2000-2001 survey of US government sector agencies, seven of the agencies polled reported that skill at an advanced level in Portuguese was a need in their organizations. In 2005, your administration included Portuguese among the "strategic languages" the Department of Defense has included for its National Security Education Program and has featured Portuguese in the Department's "Foreign Language Roadmap." Portuguese has also been identified by the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Defense Language Institute, the Foreign Service Institute, and the National Security Education Program, as a foreign language critical to the national security of the United States. It has also been identified as one of the “commonly less-taught languages” to be promoted and taught at the secondary school and university levels.

To now refer to a Portuguese language program as a “wasteful project” is contradictory to your previous policies and initiatives to support foreign language learning in the United States in general, and to the instruction of the Portuguese language in particular. Moreover, it is a blatant insult to every Portuguese-American who has contributed immensely to the foundation and growth of this country over the past 200 years. Portuguese-Americans have consistently been hard-working, self-sufficient and well-assimilated citizens of this great nation. Furthermore, the Republic of Portugal deserves more respect from the President of the United States as it has been a good ally and friend, and as Portugal serves as President of the European Union this year.

We ask that a statement clarifying your position toward the value of the teaching of Portuguese as a second language (read “foreign language”) in our schools and universities as a critical need language be submitted to our organization on behalf of all Portuguese here in the United States, as well as all Portuguese citizens in Portugal. This statement will be distributed to our community so that they are assured that you do not view our language as insignificant and that programs to support the teaching of the Portuguese language will be met with the same consideration as other critical world languages.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to your response.
John Bento
Portuguese-American Leadership Council of the United States, Inc.

CC: The Honorable João de Vallera, Ambassador of Portugal to the United States
CC: All members of the Portuguese-American Caucus in the United States House of Representatives
CC: All members of the Friends of Portugal in the United States Senate

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Keep up the good work.

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