English just doesn’t cut it anymore — especially in a place like Hawaii.

That notion is the driving force behind an ongoing state initiative, co-sponsored by the University of Hawaii, to develop language education policies that would equip students with foreign language proficiency, ultimately creating a workforce prepared to compete in the global economy.

Business, government and education leaders gathered today at an all-day summit to kick off that initiative. The walls were lined with sheets of paper plastered with sticky notes and hand-written lists outlining the language skills needed in Hawaii and proposing policies or programs that would ensure the state’s students are armed with those skills.

The Hawaii Language Roadmap, as it’s called, is expected to be implemented at Hawaii schools by this September. The local effort is co-sponsored by the Language Flagship — a federally funded initiative that promotes competency in critical world languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Swahili. The group’s mission is to change the way Americans learn languages, largely by shaping education policy. Five states have already launched language roadmaps.

The summit wrapped up with a salute to former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who attended the event to receive the national 2013 Language Flagship Leadership Award. The award each year honors a single recipient for advancing language education in the country.

During his time as senator Akaka played key roles in efforts to support language education, including the National Foreign Language Coordination ActHis appreciation for language stems from his childhood, he recalled, when his parents prohibited him and his siblings from speaking Hawaiian.

“In a way, for human beings, when you’re deprived of something, that drives you,” he said. “So being deprived of the language of Hawaii in a sense drove us to do all we can to promote that in our lifetimes … Foreign language proficiency is important to the future as well as cultural understanding. And a combination of that is so important to the lives of our people, our states as well as our counties — to the point where it affects our national security.”

Also in attendance was Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who said he’ll support the initiative every step of the way.

Words define us as human beings,” he said. “Words give us our perception of the world … they can easily divide us as define us.”

— Alia Wong