Alright, back to the foreign language intra-Q&E debate, sparked by Kevin’s commentary on the questionable utility of studying a foreign language in high school and then another to highlight a reader’s view, and then Sara’s bust up of Kevin’s so-called consensus of two, followed by Margie’s idea to start with Chinese.
So I have to weigh in…
Kevin’s lament about his own French-taking experience aside, he and Sara and the-one-who-wrote-in are all right that we need to teach foreign language earlier, but it’s not so simple.
First of all, a few hours a week at any grade will offer, at best, mere exposure to language. This isn’t a bad thing if exposure is the goal, but it will not ensure proficiency. In the early grades, we need full immersion where kids are taught the language not as a separate “language class” but as part of content learning throughout the day. Critics say that this approach delays achievement in English and research backs this but also shows that this lag only happens in the very short term and, in the long run, these kids score as well or better than their peers in all subjects and test higher on cognitive tests.
Secondly, our public schools are woefully under-prepared to teach foreign language well- not to mention bilingualism and biliteracy, which is really what we should pay attention to as our population changes and our approach to language (hopefully) evolves. So we have a big job ahead of us in developing a teaching force- elementary and secondary. I think it’s a task worth taking on but have to point out that we are behind the curve.
Finally, I think Margie and Sara are right that Arabic and Chinese and other languages would be good to teach and learn, but wrong to suggest that the demographic changes in this country shouldn’t be the driver for its foreign language curriculum. In some places, this will mean Chinese. But in most, it means Spanish. This is most practical, not only for the nation but also for me. Consider a place like Oakland, CA- with a large Chinese population. It has several English-Chinese dual immersion programs that teach both English and Chinese. This makes perfect sense. Native English-speakers learn Mandarin or Cantonese, while Mandarin or Cantonese-speakers learn English. Both emerge able to communicate and participate more fully in the community. And in the Fruitvale area of Oakland, where the population is largely Vietnamese and Spanish, the elementary school rightly offers bilingual classes in these two languages. There are kids in this area that speak at least 20 other languages but these are the dominant ones, the ones that drive the community, and the ones that schools should teach.
The Bay Area, being the Bay Area, has immersion programs in French, German, Swedish, Armenian, Farsi and many other languages. And I agree it’s good for any child to learn other world languages (by the way, the $114 million next year for critical language learning in Farsi and Hindi and others should help). But the fact remains that the practical second language in this country is Spanish (Chinese is a very distant third, albeit growing along with Vietnamese and Russian) and most populations and school programs should and will reflect this. If a choice is to be made for public school curriculum, Spanish is the right one. The fact that Spanish is not a language of power outside of this nation does not change the reality that it is a language that has a strong history and an inevitable future in this country.