Importance of Learning a Second Language

Like I have been saying all along, we need to start young students learning a language other than their own from an early age.  That’s when kids pick up a language the fastest.  I should know because I started learning another language at age four and now am continuing to learn four others.  I strongly agree with the superintendent of an Oregon school system (please see the article printed below)  who said: “We are the only industrial country where kids don’t learn another language.  We are out of line with the rest of the world in terms of second language instruction.  Nationally, it’s a problem we’re not doing more.”  Foreign languages are crucial not just for the purpose of communicating with people around the world.  They’re important because we need to know more about other nations’ cultures and history to improve world relations.

Story by Paris Achen from the Associated Press, “Medford Area Students Lack Foreign Language Classes,” October 17, 2010:

As soon as eighth-grader Breanna Cwiklinski heard Mandarin Chinese would be offered at Central Point’s Scenic Middle School this year, she was eager to sign up for the class.

“There was nothing else like it,” Breanna says. “It’s the first time ever there was another language to learn (at school), and it was a good opportunity.”
After about a month of instruction from teacher Qi Jing, of Xuchang, China, Breanna and her 36 classmates, divided between two sections, can understand simple sentences in Mandarin and have learned about China and its culture.
Breanna says one of the differences she noticed between U.S. and Chinese societies is that all Chinese students learn English at a young age.
Ordinarily, Chinese students begin studying English in the third grade, says Lin Lin, a Mandarin teacher at Medford’s St. Mary’s School. (St. Mary’s provides the Mandarin instructor at Scenic free of charge as part of its role as a Confucius Classroom designated and funded by the Chinese government-affiliated Hanban Chinese Language Council.)
Proactive Chinese parents in large cities often enroll their children in English classes at ages as young as 4 or 5, Lin Lin says.
“I think at a young age we should learn another language, too, because you see a lot of different nationalities over here,” Breanna says.
An estimated 18.5 percent of U.S. students in kindergarten through the 12th grade were enrolled in a second language class at school in 2007-08, according to a survey by the Alexandria, Va.-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages due to be released later this month.
That percentage has increased by only half a percent from 10 years before, says ACTFL Executive Director Brett Lovejoy.

Second language instruction is rarely available at Jackson County public elementary and middle schools, and only a fraction of students participate. Even at the high school level, a minority of students are enrolled in a second language at any given time.
Ten out of 13 Jackson County public high schools, seven out of 14 public middle schools and nine out of 39 public elementary schools offer any type of a second language, either during or after school, according to research by the Mail Tribune.
Exceptions are Medford’s Madrone Trail Public Charter School, where everyone is required to learn French; voluntary Spanish immersion programs at Phoenix and Talent elementary schools; and the introduction of Mandarin at schools such as Scenic and Ruch that are taking advantage of grant-funded Mandarin teachers.
If parents can afford it, they can send their children to private schools where it’s more likely the study of second languages is compulsory, even in the first grade. Ashland’s Siskiyou (Waldorf) School, Medford’s Sacred Heart School, Eagle Point’s St. John Lutheran School and Shady Point Seventh-day Adventist School are all examples of private schools that require the study of another language.
In contrast, nearly 100 percent of school-age students in European Union countries are enrolled in a foreign language, and it’s often not just a second language but also a third or fourth language, Lovejoy says.
English language instruction begins at age 6 in Austria and age 8 in Germany and Spain, according to a 2000 study, “Foreign Language Teaching: What the United States Can Learn from Other Countries,” by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics. Germans and Austrians are also required to study a third language such as French or Italian, CAL found.
“We are the only industrial country where kids don’t learn another language,” says Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro. “We are out of line with the rest of the world in terms of second language instruction. Nationally, it’s a problem we’re not doing more.”
Di Chiro says funding is the main obstacle to providing more second-language instruction despite ever-present demand for it among parents in the Ashland district. Parents have been asking for a Spanish immersion program like the one in the Phoenix-Talent School District, but so far, Ashland hasn’t had the resources to fulfill their wish, she says.
The scarcity of second language instruction in U.S. public schools isn’t likely to end any time soon, Lovejoy says.
Recent school budget cuts because of the recession have taken a toll on second language instruction.
When schools reduce expenses, second languages are often among the first targets for cuts, not only because of a lack of financial resources but also because federal and state governments have not made them a priority.
Thirty-four out of 50 states, including Oregon, don’t require any credits in a foreign language to graduate from high school. Oregon’s new diploma standards for 2012 require three credits from any of three categories: a second language, art and/or career and technical education. Still, study of a second language in high school remains optional, albeit recommended because of university admission requirements, which usually include two years of a second language.
“Learning another language allows students to problem solve better and learn other skills more readily because they’re not dependent on one set of information,” says Central Point schools Superintendent Randy Gravon. “It’s a good education tool. We just haven’t embraced it in this country.”
Rare inroads in second language instruction in Jackson County public schools have come as a result of grants by Hanban and the U.S. Department of Education, which have brought Mandarin classes to 14 schools — some of which wouldn’t have second-language instruction otherwise. But educators fear those programs are likely to disappear if and when any of those special funding streams dry up.
There’s also a lingering belief among some Americans that there’s no need to know a second language because most of the world knows English.
Those who think learning another language isn’t important should reconsider, says Ray Johnson, superintendent of Cascade Christian High School and Grace Christian School in Medford.
“I’ve told my own children to take at least two years if not more of a second language and to get serious about it because it will give you an edge in getting a job,” Johnson says.
Grace Christian requires all pupils in first through eighth grades to study Spanish. Cascade students are required to take at least two years of either Spanish or French, but they may study both languages for all four years if they wish.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Importance of Learning a Second Language

  1. I appreciate your post, which both sparked my attention and caused me to reflect on many of the issues surrounding foreign languages in our schools and in our country at large. In my own blog, I address the importance of bilingualism while explore many of the problems that we as a nation tend to associate with foreign languages. There is no doubt that knowing a second or third language is extremely advantageous, both within our borders and beyond. Bilingualism is extremely important in our world today, not only in terms of advancing as a country in this global economy, but so that we can personally grow and understand other cultures as well. Why is it then that our schools do not reflect this belief? As you mention, most schools throughout the country, do not require foreign language instruction until high school. Since colleges only require about two years of a foreign language, the result of many students deciding not to continue this education is problematic. Learning a foreign language beginning at the age of 14 for only one or two years will not do much. I completely agree with your idea of implementing foreign languages earlier in school. To me this does not only seem beneficial, but a necessity.

    Being exposed to another language in elementary school is key to achieving fluency in that language. After reading this, I was appalled that “thirty-four out of 50 states…don’t require any credits in a foreign language to graduate from high school.” I also believed it to be problematic that the percentage of students enrolled in a foreign language has only increased by 1/2% (when it was already at an alarmingly low rate ten years earlier). While we pride ourselves in being a national powerhouse, it is time to put our ego aside and realize the importance of learning other languages. I agree that we should look to other models such as China and Europe who have high foreign language success rates because they are implemented in the curriculum of elementary schools. Although English has become the universal language, this should no longer be a valid excuse. If we want to remain powerful, it is time to cultivate diversity so that we can succeed internationally. The best way to do this is to introduce elementary school students to foreign languages in order to break this national lack of motivation and embrace diversity. Again, thank you for this post; your powerful stance allowed me to explore my own beliefs regarding this national problem.

  2. Pingback: Going Global with Summer Language Camps « Alameda Education Foundation

  3. Nia

    Learning asecond language can creat better understanding of different cultures,open job opportunities; help with academic success, make taveling easier, and help people communicate throughout the world.

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