Languages Shouldn’t Be So Foreign

That’s right — we need more foreign language programs in the schools — something I have been writing about for some time now. Kelsey Decker, who is an intern for the Savana Morning News, offers her views on the matter below (March 7, 2011):

It’s time for U.S. schools to step up their foreign language programs. Undeniably, it is beneficial to be at least familiar with a language other than English.

A study from this year demonstrated bilingualism helps children “learn to prioritize information, provide(s) a defense against some effects of Alzheimer’s or just provide(s) a great workout for the brain,” according to an article from the Los Angeles Times. It also helps speakers learn to choose their words better and express thoughts more accurately because they can move between the languages.

Georgia requires high school students to have just two years of a foreign language to graduate. Likewise, many students in U.S. schools don’t receive enough foreign language education to truly have a lasting impact (though two years is better than nothing at all).

It would be ludicrous to generalize all U.S. school system requirements, but a foreign language seems to typically be mandatory for two years — at least that’s what it was at the high schools I attended in Japan and Texas.

Schools should be doing more, though. I began learning German in middle school as part of the curriculum where I lived in Ohio. It was arguably more beneficial to start then because the way it worked, what would have been crammed into one year in high school was spread out from sixth to eighth grade.

Learning the basics over three years meant it wasn’t just about memorization — I really understood not only the language but the culture, too. We had the time to listen to music and look at the lyrics, celebrate holidays like St. Nicholas Day and Karneval and build cities to learn what various things were called.

There are also schools that offer immersion programs for children, often beginning in elementary school, where the entire curriculum is taught in a language other than English. These programs are great, and there should be more of them because the language tends to stick with the child better than if he or she began learning it later.

However, it would also help the country 10 to 15 years from now when these children are older, if the offered programs were more diverse. Spanish, French and German are a good standard. But Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Farsi are all languages that will become increasingly important in the immediate future.

The combined population of China, India and Iran alone is 2.5 billion, which is more than one third of the world’s population. If more programs that taught languages like these were implemented in schools, children would be better prepared to interact with the rest of the world instead of the ethnocentric view many people possess today.

If programs like this could be instituted, or even if foreign languages were just required classes for more than a few years, we would be linguistically up to par with countries around the world which require students to learn English for five or more years.

No, being born into a country where English is the offical language is not a good excuse for not learning a foreign language; European students often pick up a second foreign language in addition to English.

Speaking a foreign language is something that really doesn’t have any downsides. It makes you more prepared for life, whether you are looking for a job or simply maintaining mental health. We owe it to future generations to make sure they understand the importance of it.

Kelsey Decker is an editorial intern at the Savannah Morning News and a senior at Georgia Southern University.

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