Language Instruction Essential to 21st Century Learning

January 31, 2012

By  West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Jorea M. Marple, Ed.D

One-time presidential candidate Paul Simon once called the United States a "linguistically malnourished" nation.

Sadly, in the nearly 30 years since he made that assertion, little has changed in our nation's appetite for learning a foreign language despite the large number of people from other cultural backgrounds who live in the United States. The reality is few Americans can boast proficiency in a language other than English.

In the 21st century, where our economy is truly global, that indifference can no longer be acceptable. The globalization phenomenon has changed how West Virginia and other states must think about educating their children. A thorough knowledge of foreign languages, a skill once thought optional by some, is now essential in today’s digital economy.

Our companies lose international contracts, our scientists miss important collaborations, international assistance organizations fail to understand local customs, and average Americans are deprived of cultural enrichment when we fail to embrace the study of other languages.

In addition, A 2002 review by the General Accounting Office on foreign language skills at the U.S. Army, the State Department, the Foreign Commercial Service of the Department of Commerce, and the FBI found troubling language shortfalls that are affecting our very safety.

In the report, agency officials said the significant shortfalls “hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts." The report also cited diplomatic and intelligence officials' specific comments about the shortages having "weakened the fight against international terrorism and drug trafficking."

While the economy and national defense are reason enough to encourage children and our public schools to increase the study of world languages, the reasons to support second language acquisition go further. Recent research at York University in Toronto, Canada, suggests that speaking a second language increases brain power and delays Alzheimer’s disease by about five years.

Other research suggests language learning correlates with higher academic achievement on standardized tests, is beneficial in the development of student reading abilities, fosters creativity and divergent thinking, and helps teachers to better educate the whole child.

February is a good time to explore languages as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages celebrates National Discover Languages Month. Part of a sustained effort, Discover Languages Month was developed to raise public awareness about the cognitive, academic, cultural and economic benefits language learning provides and to help all students.

Unfortunately, there is no short-cut to becoming fluent in another tongue. It is a long-term process that takes hard work, individual commitment and proper support. We must place a greater emphasis on foreign-language instruction in our schools, including the elementary level. Making foreign language as high a priority as reading, math and science will ensure that we increase the supply line of students who have strong language skills and the professional development for educators to teach them.

Despite the obvious advantages, many schools are slow to embrace change and expand foreign language offerings even though federal guidelines identify foreign languages as a core subject. Across the country, only about a fourth of U.S. public elementary schools report teaching foreign languages, and most of these schools provide only introductory courses. And fewer than half of all U.S. high school students are studying a foreign language.

This is something we want to change in West Virginia. We are working to develop model elementary school programs at targeted sites that include the incorporation of world languages. We also are working on a statewide Spanish immersion summer camp for high school students as well as supporting the development of an immersion model school.

Across the state, about 60,580 students are studying another language besides English this school year. Most of those, about 65 percent, are at the high school level. About 34 percent are in middle schools and less than one percent is in elementary schools. This is a good start but we can and must do better.

We know the earlier children start learning a second language, the easier it is for them to grasp. Researchers tell us that’s because the mechanism by which the brain learns a language peaks at age 7 when the ability to learn a second language begins to decline.

Learning a foreign language -- not just in snippets but as a sustained education -- allows students to take on an alternative identity and see the world in different ways. This is especially true for less privileged students like many here in West Virginia. We owe it to our children to help them learn another language and gain a better understanding of the world in which they live.

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