Wednesday, September 21, 2011

US students lose out to bilingual competition, published in the Centre Daily Times September 2011

What if we sent a group of Pennsylvania kids to a sporting tournament against the best young athletes from around the country, without first teaching them how to play the sport?  How about entering our children in a music competition, without first teaching them how to play an instrument?  We’d never do that, right?  How about this:  sending our young adults, freshly graduated from high school or college, into a global job market against the best and brightest from around the world, without first teaching them how to communicate?  We’re doing that now, with only about 1 in 10 Americans able to speak more than one language.

The good jobs in the future will be fiercely competitive, with people from South America, Europe, and Asia all fighting for them.  There’s one big difference between our kids and theirs – most of them speak other languages, and ours don’t.  Over half of Europeans speak a second language, usually English.  South Korea and China teach all their young children English, and Japan starts mandatory English for their kids next year.

Since so much of the world now speaks English, you might be tempted to believe we’ve won some sort of global contest, and need never learn other languages again.  The opposite is true.  Other countries have us at a distinct disadvantage, with their young adults, fluent in their and our languages, beating out ours for lucrative jobs with multi-national companies, abroad and here in the USA. 

Most of our schools start offering language instruction in Junior High or High school.  This clearly doesn’t work well, though, since so few of our adults are bi-lingual.  The time to teach other languages is at very young ages – starting in Elementary school.  As most parents know, kid’s brains are like sponges. Those sponges harden with time, though, and if language learning skills aren’t exercised early, it’s awfully hard to develop them later.

I’ve heard from educators in our area that they’d like to include language in Grade School, but simply don’t have the time or resources to do so.  Studies in the European Union show that kids need at least two or more sessions of at least 30 minutes a week to effectively learn another language.  They also need bi-lingual teachers, and as we know, there aren’t many of those here in the US.  In spite of these difficulties, many charter and private schools are using their early language programs to lure kids away from public schools who don’t offer them. 

Perhaps we need to reprioritize what our children spend their time on, or even consider extending the school day to fit in languages.  As many educators know, multi-lingual kids are even better with their native languages, better at math, better at science, essentially better at everything.  This means higher test scores, something that our school districts should be interested in.

Both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have advocated early childhood language learning, both with their eyes on the future job market.  If these two agree, surely the rest of us can.  Our country’s future depends on it.