What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who can speak one language? American. It’s an old joke that’s no longer funny.
U.S. national security and American businesses alike have called for greater language capacity among Americans, but schools have not been able to help meet this need.
Only 25 percent of elementary schools in the United States offered any world languages in 2008, down from 31 percent in 1997, due to the increased focus on accountability in reading and math alone as a result of No Child Left Behind. American secondary schools offer more opportunities yet involvement is still low; currently, only half of all American high school students take even one year of a world language. For the past fifty years, school language choices have remained for the most part the same commonly taught European languages.
Language offerings in American schools contrast markedly with those of other countries where learning a second language is a higher priority. Twenty out of 25 industrialized countries start teaching languages in grades K-5 and 21 of the 31 countries in the European Union require nine years of language study.
In this rapidly changing and increasingly global economy, there is a growing need for workers with the skills to work across different languages and cultures. In fact, according to the Committee for Economic Development, a non-profit organization of more than 200 business leaders and university presidents, “to compete successfully in the global marketplace, both U.S.-based multinational corporations as well as small businesses, increasingly need employees with knowledge of foreign languages and cultures to market products to customers around the globe and to work effectively with foreign employees and partners in other countries.”
Beyond the clear economic and professional advantages of achieving facility in a language other than English, language learning also has clear cognitive benefits for students of all ages. There are many examples of people who start learning a language late in life who successfully achieve high levels of linguistic proficiency, but studies clearly show that there is a significant advantage for those who have the opportunity to start early. The human brain is more open to linguistic development in the years before adolescence, so children who learn a language during elementary school are more likely to achieve native-like pronunciation.
Research also shows that learning another language early has other cognitive and academic benefits. Increased mental flexibility, the ability to shift easily between different symbol systems, improved divergent thinking, and, sometimes, higher scores on measures of verbal ability all correlate with early language learning. On standardized achievement tests, young language learners often outperform their peers who are not studying a foreign language. As anyone who has learned another language knows, it also enhances a student’s understanding of the structure and patterns of English. Perhaps more importantly, the set of linguistic and communicative skills that students develop through learning one foreign language can be applied to the learning of other languages.
Beyond the language skills acquired, learning a language gives tremendous insight into other cultures. Contemporary world language instruction goes well beyond the teaching of verb tenses—effective foreign language programs in schools today introduce students to the cultures, societies, and communication strategies of speakers of the target language. In learning about culture and society, students not only learn the specifics of those countries or regions, but also develop a set of skills that will enable them to better understand and adapt to other cultures more generally. Just as students learn to “code switch” between different languages, they will also learn to do so in terms of cultural practices and communicative strategies. In this way, exposure to a second language and culture can benefit students even if they do not attain high levels of fluency.
In this increasingly interdependent and diverse society, learning to communicate across cultures is critical to the social fabric of our schools and communities and will benefit students throughout their adult lives. Learning how to cross multiple linguistic and cultural planes is an important skill that, unfortunately, the majority of American students are not yet developing—and one in which students in most other parts of the world learn as a core part of their academic program.
For all these reasons, languages have a central place in a globally focused school. On a positive note, polls suggest that parents increasingly understand the importance of early language learning. According to a 2007 Phi Delta Kappan poll, 85 percent of the public believes that language study is important and 70 percent believe language learning should begin in elementary school. In fact, wherever a new elementary school with a strong language program opens, it is invariably oversubscribed.