There are probably 20 reasons why U.S. schools should be teaching more foreign languages more effectively. At least that’s my view. I would be interested in yours, parents. (By the way, foreign languages are now often called “world languages,” which makes sense, or “languages other than English,” which makes sense, but is a bit awkward, I think. I am using “foreign languages” here because I believe that is still what most parents would say.)
You might want to read up on the subject in two thought-provoking articles in Education Week, written by Global Learning blog curator Heather Singmaster, assistant director of education at Asia Society—“Bilingualism: Valuable for the Brain and Society” and “Foreign Language Policies: Is Everyone Else Really Speaking English?”:
She talks about economic, socioeconomic, cultural, cognitive, and national defense arguments in favor of increased attention to language study in U.S. schools. She talks about reasons that are important to our country and reasons that are important to individual students. She talks about language learning requirements in other countries and how we stack up—or don’t.
Some of it is common sense, and some isn’t. For example, here is something I didn’t know, and it should be especially interesting to parents of elementary school children. Ms. Singmaster writes about Jared Diamond’s book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies:
An entire chapter is devoted to the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism, and the development and spread of languages. In traditional societies [like those in New Guinea and the Amazon Basin], multilingualism was (and is, for the very few that remain) widespread. While many in the West fear that our children will be confused if they are exposed to more than one language at a time, kids in traditional societies begin learning additional languages from birth—and not just one or two. Diamond can’t think of a single person he has met in New Guinea that speaks fewer than five languages (and yes, they are all “mutually unintelligible languages,” not dialects).
We have been told that the early years are the best for learning another language; it is one argument that has been used in favor of elementary school foreign language programs for a long time. But Diamond’s work in New Guinea takes that argument to a whole new level.
I recently returned from a visit to a school district in a Far Western state. The state awards scholarships for college study to its high school graduating seniors. Among the requirements are two years of foreign language study and three years of math and three years of science in high school or no foreign language study and four years of math and four years of science. How does that make sense? In what world are two years of foreign language study equivalent to a fourth year of math and science, regardless of which you think are more important? If those were college distribution requirements, no college in the country would agree to that swap.
While I am not arguing against the value of a fourth year of math and science, I am arguing that studying a foreign language (or more than one) provides students with a completely different kind of intellectual and cultural experience—one that students shouldn’t miss out on in high school, especially if they are not going on to college and this is their last chance to learn a second language as part of their formal education. It goes without saying that being able to communicate in a second language—even at a fundamental level, which is all a student is likely to get out of two or even three years of high school study—could be a big help to students as they enter the working world, especially if they live in or move to a location that has a large population of workers who speak other languages, as many urban and rural areas do.
Furthermore, there are still quite a few colleges, including some of our best colleges, that are expecting to see foreign language study on their applicants’ high school transcripts. Two years of foreign language study would be the minimum that they would be looking for. Some great colleges are expecting three or even four years—typically of the same language.
Parents, the fact that your state might not require any foreign language study for high school graduation or might require just one year’s worth (as New York State does) does not mean that your school district cannot require more (just as your district might require more of any given subject than your state requires)—that is, more foreign language study to ensure that your children are, literally, college and career ready.
It is time to take a look at both your state’s and your school district’s requirements for studying a foreign language:
- All parents: Ask your school board to talk about your state’s requirements for foreign language study in order to earn a high school diploma in your state and then about your school district’s requirements for foreign language study in order to earn a high school diploma in your district. Are those requirements the same or does your district require more years of foreign language study (it can’t, of course, require fewer)? What is the school board’s reasoning for the foreign language requirement in your district? What was the superintendent’s reasoning for recommending that requirement? How were the specific languages offered in your district chosen? What do labor market statistics or other indicators say about the value of learning various specific languages (e.g., Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin)? When does foreign language study start in your district? If you are not lucky enough to have foreign languages in the elementary schools, why not? What does the school board think is more important? What community input was obtained when all of these decisions were being made?
This discussion should be part of an open board meeting, but board members should have the opportunity to meet with the superintendent, assistant superintendent for instruction, central office specialist, principals, department chairs, and/or teachers to find out exactly what the district’s decisions were based on and to determine whether there are any grounds for rethinking any of those decisions if you are not satisfied.