We need foreign languages in our American lives
December 11, 2003
After a week enjoying the visit of two French-speaking friends — native Belgians now living on the Atlantic coast of France — I’m reminded of how enriching exposure to a foreign language can be.
I’m also embarrassed at how the American education system misses the mark in exposing our young people to other languages at a young age when they can most benefit.
I know a little Spanish from having grown up on the West Coast of the U.S. I also remember getting some basic Spanish lessons in elementary school. I’m pretty sure what I now remember best is what I learned early.
I took Mandarin Chinese in college, but remember only bits and pieces.
The only French I know is what I learned in the car listening to a beginner’s set of tapes. Fortunately, my guests, Deborah and her sister Pamela, know English very well.
Talking and listening to my French friends was fun and fascinating. English absorbed many French words following the conquest of the British Isles by William the Conqueror in A.D. 1066, it was fun snatching a familiar word here and there from their French conversations.
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A couple years ago, I visited with them and their family in France. Their mother is a native of the German speaking portion of Belgium. Even though she knew very little English, we were able to communicate because she recognized many English words from their common Germanic roots.
I, on the other hand, was completely dependent on them understanding me. The French words and phrases I used were more a practice exercise then real communication.
Study after study has shown language development is most active at the elementary — even preschool –level. Once a student reaches adolescence, it becomes more difficult to learn a new language. However, a student exposed to a second language early can learn a third language more easily in adolescence or later years.
In Europe, with so many countries and languages spoken in a small area, schools start early teaching second languages. Students don’t always take the studies any more seriously than they do in the U.S. Deborah learned more from American television shows than at school, but at least she had the exposure to help her grasp the pop-culture language.
Personally, I feel short changed. I could have taken a foreign language in middle school and high school but there was little encouragement to do so. My interests at that time lay elsewhere and so did my focus of studies.
When my sons were in school, they also could have taken a language in middle and high schools. But, in middle school, only students with good grades could take Spanish and they could not take both music and Spanish. Everyone else was funneled into electives such as shop as if only college bound students could benefit from another language.
We live in a world economy where many languages can be heard around us. Americans also enjoy traveling where knowledge of other languages can be very helpful.
Douglas County schools have been making inroads into elementary language lessons but, I think, they need to be more than just an extra class.
In my opinion, every Western state should teach Spanish (in the Northeast, French) in such a focused way that students are fluent by middle school. Then they can take a third language if they want. What a concept!
I’ve decided when I have grandchildren, I’m going to find some way to expose them to a second language early, whether it means private lessons or taking them to a Spanish-speaking activity.
What I really hope is that the education system in the U.S. gets a better handle on teaching foreign languages early. Left to themselves, most students will not gravitate to language lessons even though it will enrich their lives
– Sally J. Taylor is the news editor of The Record-Courier and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (775) 782-5121 ext. 215.