Foreign Languages in American Public Schools
My mother and father both studied foreign languages at Irmo High School, a public school. Some people might say that learning a foreign language only in high school is sufficient instruction. Today, however, Mom cannot recall how to conjugate a verb in French, and Dad only pretends to know German. Foreign language instruction must be mandatory in all levels of US public schooling to ensure that children will retain their knowledge of a foreign language for life. There are many reasons to mandate foreign language instruction as early as elementary school.
Children who take foreign languages from an early age tend to have a better command of the English language. This is because American English borrows heavily from other languages, and understanding the origins of words and their roots leads to a better understanding of languages’ common vocabulary. Students of foreign languages reap other important benefits as well. Students who have had at least four years of foreign language study tend to do better on standardized tests. In a 1992 study on this topic, the data showed that the aforementioned students scored higher on standardized tests than students who had not studied another language for four or more years. Children who study foreign languages in their early years will also do better than their monolingual peers in the corporate world.
The ability to speak two languages figures heavily into today’s job requirements. Many Fortune 500 companies and the United Nations require job applicants to speak and/or write a second language. In the future, the majority of good jobs may ask for the same. By now, you may be thinking, “Yes, I see the benefits, but where is the proof that mandating foreign language study in all levels of US public schooling will actually increase the probability of a student retaining knowledge of the language?” This method is already working. In the Netherlands, children who start learning foreign languages as early as the age of six are fluent in those languages throughout their adulthood. I have observed this firsthand in the Netherlands, where almost everyone is fluent in English.
Now, you may argue, “That is the point! Everyone speaks English now, so we don’t need to know their languages!” On the contrary, by a relatively small portion of the world’s population–only 27%. The time may come when Americans need to be bilingual. If we do not teach children foreign languages beginning in first grade, when they have the greatest capacity for learning languages, they could pay the price in adulthood. By high school, when foreign language studies are mandatory, kids have “missed the window” for maximum absorption of foreign languages. Of course, there are some costs to adding a new class to elementary and middle schools. The government would have to pay the cost, plan curricula, lengthen the students’ schedules, and build classrooms.
However, it is my opinion that the benefit to the children–mastery of another language–outweighs the costs.