This month, 24 young men and women from high schools, L.A., Seattle and throughout the Hawaiian Islands, did something extraordinary. Rather than spending their summer playing Xbox or hanging out at the mall, they spent 2 weeks in an intensive Arabic language immersion camp with the goal of gaining exposure to Arabic language and culture.

The summer camp, a One World Now (OWN) program sponsored by Qatar Foundation International (QFI), was held at the University of Hawaii-Manoa with local partner, the Pacific Asian Affairs Council.

These students understand that one of the hard truths revealed by the region’s ongoing turmoil is that now, more than ever, the United States must make foreign language learning a true priority, with Arabic right at the top of the list. Too few of us have the ability to read, write, speak and think in the languages of nations that have an increasingly crucial impact on U.S. national interests.

The language list is not limited to Arabic. A glance at the headlines shows why our country needs more professionals in business, national security and academia who can communicate effectively in Chinese, Russian, Pashto, among others. There are various programs that try to meet this pressing need, but ultimately a national challenge of this magnitude needs a national strategy. Sadly, foreign language instruction has suffered in school systems across the nation as educators place extra emphasis on meeting the requirements of “No Child Left Behind”. And in constrained economic times, budget cuts rarely spare foreign language programs.

There have been innumerable conferences, articles and reports on the dismal state of foreign language instruction, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently called it a “high stakes issue”, but little has been done to address the challenge in a concerted way. Although supportive legislation has been introduced in Congress, it languishes, waiting for more leaders to recognize that global language and cultural competence does not happen by accident – it needs to be part and parcel of our education system. President Obama’s recent State of the Union address underscored the urgency of increasing American investments in scientific research and innovation, but this not enough. We must become equally competitive in our understanding of world languages and cultures.

Studies have concluded that many young Americans believe they will be at a competitive disadvantage if they do not learn a foreign language. Education experts emphasize the broader cognitive advantages that come from learning a second language and developing an understanding of other cultures. Security concerns have resulted in some creative governmental endeavors such as the National Security Language Initiative, and the Defense Department has made foreign language study a priority over the past decade.

Experts agree that the earlier a child starts learning a language, the better his or her chances will be of developing a high level of competency in that language. But federal and state efforts to introduce foreign languages into the curricula have been meager. Shockingly, the Center for Applied Linguistics reports that from 1997 to 2008 the percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased significantly, from 31% to 25%. The figure for middle schools plunged from 75% to 58%.

A few states, including Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah, have prepared road maps to help educators and administrators think more strategically about foreign language instruction. Chicago has plans to improve language teaching, starting in kindergarten, and Fairfax County, Virginia has developed a program to augment foreign language offerings, including Arabic. Some specific schools have chosen a particular foreign language and made it a graduation requirement.

Worthy of attention are the efforts by foundations that have committed themselves to promoting foreign language and cultural education and whose contributions could have far-reaching influence. The Asia Society and Qatar Foundation International (QFI), for example, are funding programs for Chinese and Arabic respectively, and providing scholarships for teachers and students. In addition, they offer other assistance to foreign language associations and school districts.

Arabic language programs have found their way into other public and private schools despite meager resources. A recent survey by the National Capital Language Resource Center of Washington estimates that more than 47,000 American students are studying Arabic – up from some 26,000 in 2006. This is clear evidence that many students and their parents recognize the value of learning a language spoken by over 200 million people worldwide and of cultural significance to hundreds of millions more. Undertakings like those of QFI, which has a long-term initiative to increase Arabic teaching in public high schools, with initial programs in Washington, D.C., Boston, Portland, OR and Honolulu, will increase those numbers, but far more must be done by school systems, the private sector, and the federal government.

At a 2008 town hall meeting, President Obama might have been channeling his fellow citizens when he said: “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing.” In fact, it is far more than embarrassing, for it represents a failure on our part to engage on a fundamental level with much of the rest of the world.

About the authors: Ambassador (retired) Michael Lemmon is former Dean of the State Department’s School of Language Studies, Chair of the Language Flagship Group and a member of QFI’s Arabic Language Advisory Board.

Mahmoud Al-Batal is Associate Professor and director of the Arabic Flagship program at the University of Texas, Austin.