It’s class registration time, and as many USC students know (perhaps begrudgingly), that means it’s time to make sure their foreign language requirement has been fulfilled. Some students are lucky to be proficient enough in another language to test out. Many others, however, will have to take between one and four extra semesters of language. But learning a second language is far from just another course to check off the list.
A study done by an MIT economist found that an American who learns a foreign language gets an average earnings bonus of 2 percent. When applied to the average college graduate’s starting salary of around $45,000, this 2 percent adds an additional $67,000 to the graduate’s lifetime earnings, according to the Economist. Another study, done by the Cardiff Business School, estimated that it costs Britain $80 billion every year due to lack of proficiency in foreign languages.
American students can understand what these numbers imply for our own pockets and our government’s pocket. But still, only 18 percent of Americans are well versed in a language other than English, while 53 percent of our European counterparts can speak at least two languages.
If statistics can’t convince you, let’s talk jobs. “We need diplomats, intelligence and foreign policy experts, politicians, military leaders, business leaders, scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs, managers, technicians, historians, artists, and writers who are proficient in languages other than English,” a writer for Forbes so clearly put.
The United States isn’t the only country in the world, believe it or not (and English isn’t even our official language). To anyone who has ever taken a class in politics, sociology or business, it is inherently obvious that the United States must be able to function with the countries around us in order to survive. And to ensure that survival, we must be able to speak the languages of the countries with which we interact.
“To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2010, “Americans need to read speak and understand other languages.” And since understanding the basics of subjects starts in elementary school, it follows logically that second language acquisition should begin there too.
It would also seem linguistically much easier for younger children to acquire languages. In fact, if a child is learning two languages at a time, he or she will learn both at the same rate without one language inhibiting the other.
Unfortunately, the number of public elementary schools that offer foreign language education has declined from 24 percent in 1997 to 15 percent in 2008. In all middle schools, the number decreased from 75 to 58 percent. Only high schools still reinforce foreign language learning at the same rate, with 91 percent of high schools offering options to learn a foreign language.
Many attribute these cuts in language programs to the “No Child Left Behind” program, which enforces more traditional learning, like math and English-language reading, which are both undeniably fundamental to a child’s education.
But what happens to children who learn a language other than English, enter the public school system and are henceforth taught only English? The answer is that they get left behind.
“Hard facts may be a good reason to, say, shut down an old steel mill that cannot withstand competition,” an article for the Economist stated. “But language is not a steel mill. There is far more at stake: not just people’s livelihoods, but their identities and cultural diversity itself.”
Michael Alison Chandler, a mother in Washington D.C., recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post detailing her struggles with finding an education for her son that incorporates proper language instruction. Her greatest fear is that her son will lose all the bilingualism he’s learned at his advanced day care once he enters elementary and middle school. For well-off parents, private school is the best option, as private elementary schools are over three times more likely than public elementary schools to offer instruction in foreign language. For the rest of the general population, however, it becomes a battle with school boards and budget cuts in the public school system.
Dual-language immersion programs seem to offer the most hope for public schools. Instead of being taught normal classes in English and then offering a separate foreign language course, these programs provide instruction in two languages in multiple classes throughout the school day.
While these programs can be limiting in which languages they can teach in, they are certainly the most theoretically feasible programs; instead of hiring one math teacher and one foreign language teacher, schools can simply hire one math teacher who is bilingual. Perhaps they could be implemented slowly — the elementary schools with bilingual teachers available can begin immediately and those without bilingual teachers can wait until some are made available.
But the alternative, teaching only English while some estimates project that only half of the world’s population will be speaking English by 2050, is unacceptable. As a country, we cannot economically or practically afford to be left behind.