I hear the whining all the time at school: “Why do I have to learn a foreign language? Everybody in the world speaks English.” Yes, but you can’t always count on it, and by learning a new language you learn about a new culture, a different way of life. Discovering a culture other than one’s own is an incredibly enriching, eye-opening and sometimes mind-bending experience. Not to mention the fact that in today’s global marketplace, chances are good that at some time in your career you will be working with someone from another country. Or you may be transferred to another country in which your company has a branch. Alan November, an education technology consultant, apparently is fond of recounting a story about a conversation he had with a senior executive at a global investment bank. November asked the executive what was the most important skill a student should learn for future success. The answer? Empathy – the ability to understand and respect different points of view. The marketing executive stated that it was easy enough to find smart, talented workers, less so to find those that were able to empathize with the needs and values of different nations.
Learning a different language helps build this cultural empathy. And a growing number of k-12 leaders are starting to realize that exposure to foreign languages and cultures, even from a very early age, is critical to student success and forms an integral part of being a global citizen. I can personally attest to the value of learning a language from the elementary years–I started learning French and German in fourth grade, Spanish in sixth. I kept up with my French studies in high school, eventually earning a double major in French and Anthropology. But I remember enough of both German and Spanish to be able to hold a rudimentary conversation even though more than 40 years have elapsed. And learning a language at an even earlier age, like preschool, can result in native or near-native pronunciation and intonation. That’s why, in part, that the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recommends that students “be provided the opportunity to learn a second language as early as possible in school.” Other benefits to learning foreign languages in the early grades include “strengthening of literacy in students’ first language, raising standardized test scores in other subject areas, and developing comfort with cultural differences,” the council states.
This is nothing new to most European nations, who start teaching English to very young students in preschool. As my students noted earlier, most foreign students speak English fairly well by the time they reach their teens, so they balk at having to learn something other than their mother tongue, which some of them speak and write only marginally well into the bargain. But until the great education policy makers in places of power get on board with the fact that learning a foreign language is a critical skill necessary in today’s global marketplace, the status quo will remain, and English-speaking-only individuals will be left behind in the multi-lingual dust of their competitors.