Door to Another World
Just over nine years ago, Congress passed a bill known as No Child Left Behind.
To put it simply, this new act required that students from all over the country be tested and tracked in their progress in Math and Critical Reading. Little did people realize at the time, by heavily emphasizing Math and Critical Reading, school officials pulled resources away from other subject areas. In elementary schools across the nation, one of the first subject areas that seemed to disappear was foreign language. The national survey done by the Center for Applied Linguistics found that nationwide, the number of elementary schools offering foreign language instruction dropped from 31 percent in 1997 to 25 percent in 2008 (Yount). This means that 75 percent of our nation’s elementary schools do not even offer, let alone require, secondary language. Our nation’s citizens seem to overlook this fact even though there are innumerable, albeit very underappreciated, benefits to bilingualism, especially in children.
There are too many things to be lost, and too many to be gained, to not even attempt to establish foreign language programs for primary school aged children. In the words of Stephen Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, “One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood” (Siddons). Our country needs to stop denying its children the once in a lifetime opportunity of elementary foreign language instruction. We must take the initiative and introduce foreign language into our elementary curricula in order to open a multitude of doors for our nation’s youth, and our nation’s future. I know what you’re thinking; Math and Critical Reading really are more important to children than foreign language. While the No Child Left Behind act aims to increase American students’ proficiency in these subjects, students are able to improve in these areas in other ways besides repeatedly practicing these subjects.
In fact, study of foreign language, particularly at a young age, has shown to improve learning in other subjects as well. The increased ability of those who study foreign language in the core subject areas is seen in standardized test results. From the very start of the language learning process all the way until the end of high school, when students take the ACTs and SATs, students who have studied foreign language score better in almost every subject area. In fact, the 2007 College Bound Seniors SAT report shows that students who have studied a foreign language for four or more years, average around 143 points better in every subject than those who have only 1 year of language study; specifically, they scored an additional 140 points over new language learners in Critical Reading, 140 points in Math, and 150 points on Writing (College Board). And all of these increases on the SATs are on a test worth only 800 points per subject. This means that children have the opportunity to improve their average scores on the SATs by more than 15%, simply by starting a language early in life.
While it may seem that these gains are because the kids who study foreign languages are already more privileged than others, this is simply not true. In 2004 Curtain and Daulberg, both frontrunners in the study of foreign language’s effects, conducted a study which found that, though all students showed increased test scores, “children of color, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and English Language Learners make the greatest proportionate achievement gains from foreign language study” (Curtain). Instead of promoting achievement gaps as some may suspect, foreign language study actually helps to close them. It makes sense; it really does. By studying another language, students are exposed to different grammatical rules and situations and new, unfamiliar problems. This increases their understanding of English grammar and expands their vocabulary.
It also increases their problem solving skills and reasoning. Not only does early study of a foreign language increase children’s performance on standardized tests, but there is evidence that bilingualism actually has advantageous effects on a child’s brain structure. In 2004, Nature conducted a study lead by neuroscientist Andrea Mechelli, PhD, that found that bilingual children showed increased grey matter and density in their brains (Mechelli). Grey matter is responsible for many things in our bodies, including helping sensory actions like speaking and hearing. This increased grey matter was often accompanied by the presence of a greater mass of grey matter in the brain, compared with identical aged monolingual children.
This increased amount and density of grey matter in children’s brains is strongly linked to increased intelligence. Learning another language early in life will not necessarily increase one’s intelligence, but increased IQs are certainly quite common. When there is a new study published that shows that some “wonder food,” most recently pomegranates, blueberries, or green tea, has been shown to increase intelligence, we flock to the stores and buy some for ourselves. We all say, “Why not? It certainly won’t hurt, and if it really does make me smarter, great.” Why don’t we do the same with foreign language? Are people unaware, or are we turning away from the promise of bilingualism simply because it includes a foreign element? While we all have the opportunity to increase our nation’s intelligence, we shy away from taking a stand and introducing foreign language to our children.
This needs to change. Why, you say, do we have to do it so young? Can’t it wait until middle school, or even high school? Well, young children are constantly trying to better understand the world in which we live. They are always picking up on the tiny sights and sounds that many adults overlook. They are learning numerous things every day, yet they rarely consider it work. Both of these things make it significantly easier for a young child to pick up a foreign language, often with a more accurate accent, than an adult, or even a teenager (Curtain). When young children study a language, they don’t yet have the enormous base of English vocabulary and grammar built up like adults do.
This makes it a great deal easier for them to learn a new language, because for them, it is not necessarily even considered a foreign language, as much as it is considered a second language (“The Benefits of Foreign Language Study”). They don’t have as much trouble trying to filter through, say Spanish material, translating it to English as they go, rather than just understanding the Spanish words for what they mean. Adults hear “hola” and automatically think of “hello,” while a bilingual child will just understand the word “hola” as a greeting, rather than thinking of the English equivalent. Also, when children learn languages, they repeat things exactly as they sound. They have a much easier time repeating foreign words without imposing their own accents, which have yet to be fully developed, on the words.
This makes their second language sound much more natural and more closely related to a native’s speech (Curtain). We have the chance to allow our children to learn a language with ease. Why we wait until they are teenagers, when they are fully fluent and accustomed to their mother tongue, to introduce another language is unbeknownst to me. After all, why would we up the burden on our children by waiting until they attend high school? Shouldn’t we be trying to promote the ease of education by introducing languages at a young age? Also, by starting language in elementary schools, we will be keeping up with our European and Asian counterparts. J. William Fulbright warns us that “Our linguistic and cultural myopia is losing us friends, business and respect in the world” (Simmons).
Because of the small land area of Europe, Europeans have been learning their neighboring countries’ languages for centuries. There is a reason that they start language education in primary school, and we need to look to them for a well developed example. By educating our children in another language, we will be keeping pace, and promoting a well respected American title, to the rest of the world’s citizens. The ease of learning the language is not the only reason that secondary language instruction must begin in elementary school. Languages take many years to master, as we can clearly see by the fact that becoming fluent in another language is so hard.
That being said, the more years that a child has to study a language, the more fluent they can hope to become. When children start a foreign language in elementary school, they can expect to have over twelve years of language learning by the time they finish high school. By the time they graduate, even from elementary school, they will have had more years spent studying a second language than many seniors in high school. Also, the more years of instruction that a child has, the more likely the language is to stay with them in life and be useful later on. This point is truly evident in today’s society. How many people do we all know that have taken the recommended four years of foreign language, only to promptly drop the course and forget everything they have learned? A couple years later, they are unable to understand or form even the simplest sentences in the language that they spent four years studying.
But by giving children a chance for more than 12 years of language instruction, it will become ingrained within them; and by starting it in Kindergarten, right along with Math, Science, and English, the fact that foreign language is a subject just as vital as these others will embed within them. They will view foreign language as it should be viewed. Once a child masters one language, or at least uses it comfortably, they can learn other languages. Different languages are building blocks for each other, each finding roots and words in others. When children learn one language early, it gives them an even larger base on which to educate themselves in more languages. In the words of Eva Hoffman, editor of the New York Times Book Review, “When I speak Polish now, it is infiltrated, permeated, and inflected with English in my head.
Each language modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it. Each language makes the other relative. Like everybody, I am the sum of my languages” (Siddons). Having two languages that they are comfortable using early on gives children the opportunity to become multilingual. In actuality, by giving children the opportunity to learn two languages early on, we are opening doors to other languages down the road. Children who learn another language besides their mother tongue are opened to a brand new culture awaiting them.
Having knowledge of another language is like having keys to open the secret doors of additional countries’ cultures. Knowledge of cultures in this world is vital to expanding one’s education. Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher who took a great interest in language, once said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my universe” (Siddons). Now I have a question for you, a simple one. Is it right to confine our nation’s children to one universe just because we don’t give them the tools to open the doors to other cultures? By having children learn about other cultures, they will be better able to reflect on their own.
Chancellor Edward Lee Forsuch, chancellor of the University of Alaska, puts it exactly right. He says, “Learning a foreign language not only reveals how other societies think and feel, what they have experienced and value, and how they express themselves, it also provides a cultural mirror in which we can more clearly see our own society” (Siddons). When children study another language, they will be exposed to the books, movies, music, people, and everything else that constitutes a culture. New cultures will open children’s eyes and they will be able to not only appreciate other societies, but also take part in them. After all, Americans are notorious for traveling abroad without knowing any of the local language and expecting the locals to accommodate them. I admit it; I have been in this spot myself.
Three summers ago my family and I traveled to Beijing, China for what was a view changing experience. We experienced firsthand the helpless feeling when you are surrounded by foreign buildings, stores, signs, and people, and you have absolutely no idea of what they’re saying. When people try to explore a culture without knowing anything about it, or about its language, the best they can hope for is to float along the surface of it, glimpsing at the society, but not fully understanding it. By educating our children early in foreign language, they will have the opportunity to become adept at a second language, which will give them a chance of a lifetime, a chance to travel abroad and truly experience the culture, not just the tourism side of the country. Another language gives children a chance to become a part of another culture in way that nothing else can. Second languages also give children a heads up on being accepted into their first choice college.
After all, getting into college is as difficult and as expensive as any time in the past. Having more than a decade worth of language study on our children’s transcripts would certainly be a great asset when applying to any college (Horn). It would set any applicant apart from the norm and would make having a double major in a foreign language and another major of choice a very probable and realistic thing to do. The same thing goes for careers. The job market is extremely competitive these days, and bilingualism can certainly give potential employees a huge heads up on their competitors. Employers are constantly searching for employees fluent in other languages, as this widens the range of potential customers that they can reach.
Also, foreign language knowledge is becoming a must in American business because the world is continually becoming more and more interconnected. By having employees who can fluently speak another language besides English, we widen our range of available business partners. Just over two years ago, the newly elected president, Barack Obama, gave a speech in a town hall meeting in Powder Springs, Georgia. He spoke about the importance of bilingualism in our country and about how far behind our country is in a global view. He also spoke of how, “We should have every child speaking more than one language.” Apparently then, there is national support for this issue.
The question is why is more not being done? With such numerous benefits available, we need to take the initiative and stand up for our children. Early language learning must be something that we, as a nation, prioritize right up there with Math, Science, and Writing. We must allow every child at least a chance at early exposure to second language. We must not let this opportunity pass by us; we must add foreign languages to our elementary schools and give millions of children an opportunity to be bilingual. Works Cited “2008 College Bound Seniors SAT Report.” Educators: Education Professionals – Test Dates to Annual Forum – College Board.
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