Public elementary schools in the United States should require pupils to study foreign languages in recognition of the fact that the world today involves a global economy- not a local one.
In the past, Americans could usually prosper without extensive language training. But today, the harsh demands of an increasingly international environment require students everywhere to learn new skills. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, in the future people from many different nations will interact with one another more frequently in the work place and in numerous other settings. The United States must make certain that its citizens possess the ability to participate on an equal footing.
Several arguments support this principle: these positions include the importance of communication skills, the rapid pace of global change and the benefits derived from studying new languages at a young age.
The importance of communications skills
During previous centuries, many parents in the United States wanted their children- especially their sons- to learn the “3 Rs,” i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic. Americans still typically regard communicating as a significant and important skill.
Foreign languages often figured among the subjects studied by children in the past. For instance, during most of the previous three hundred years, diplomats in many countries usually conducted international discussions using the French language. And the Catholic Church for generations expected priests to deliver sermons in Latin. People expected to learn different languages in order to interact with one another in specific settings.
So the history of education in the United States strongly supports the notion that communications skills matter, and that foreign language study serves a vital need.
Then, as now, numerous families in the United States retained familiarity with specific ancestral languages. These might include specific Native American languages in addition to European, African or Asian ones.
The ethnic diversity of the United States has contributed to an interest in a wide variety of different languages, all of them useful in terms of facilitating enhanced communication.
The rapid pace of global change
Census statistics reportedly indicate that between 1960 and 1994, the percentage of high school students enrolled in foreign language training courses increased from approximately 29.2% to 42.2%. This trend likely reflected the increasing significance of international contacts during the closing decades of the twentieth century.
The arrival of the Internet as a force in the daily lives of millions – if not billions – of human beings around the world will likely only accelerate the importance of language skills. People from very distant places communicate with one another via computers and peripheral mobile devices every minute of the day.
This development means that a genuinely global marketplace exists for many skills, services and products. And the pace of technological change occurs at a very rapid pace sometimes. In order to fill the need for accurate and effective global communications skills in the future, Americans must retain the ability to communicate in a variety of languages, in addition to English.
Relying upon automatic or computerized translators offers a rapid way to initiate contacts between native speakers of different languages, but this technology proves inadequate in terms of facilitating complete global understanding. Languages relay cultural values and environmental factors, not just a collection of different sounding vocabulary words and expressions. To communicate fluently, speakers must be able to understand fine nuances of speech, so that incorrect translations can be corrected to avoid misunderstandings.
For instance, reportedly some Eskimo languages possess multiple words for winter weather conditions. Compared to languages developed in other climate zones, the terminology relating to this issue deemed to be rich and highly specific. Communities in polar regions in former eras needed to communicate important details about the compactness and depth of snow falls.
The terms for snowfall may translate into a few words in English, but presumably many of the finer nuances would be lost during a purely mechanical interpretation process unless a proficient speaker could verify the information and correct errors accurately.
Most people probably hope that the leaders of the future will enjoy access to highly skilled, culturally sensitive human translators. Imagine the horror of a global crisis occurring simply due to a failure in cultural communications?Language training across “multiple platforms” would presumably enhance global communications.
The power of children as language learners
So, what do the importance of communications skills and the rapid advances in global technology have to do with requiring youngsters to study foreign languages in public schools in the United States? Quite a bit!
Some studies indicate that young children often possess the ability to learn new language rapidly. Additionally, the very youngest language learners can often manage to pronounce unfamiliar sounds much better than monolingual adults, who have trained their brains to listen to only one set of consistent patterns of sound.
Even later in life, individuals who have heard another language often during childhood may be able to reproduce the sounds and speech patterns much better than first time language learners who begin their studies of language at older ages.
So requiring public elementary schools to teach foreign languages in addition to English might benefit the population of the United States, and the world, in the future. Many children enjoy studying new and unfamiliar languages; they can acquire a new skill and demonstrate proficiency in it quickly in some cases.
If they begin attending foreign language classes in preschool or kindergarten and expand their knowledge every year, by the time students reach high school many of them would possess both fluency and confidence in multiple languages, plus greater familiarity with other societies around the world.
Why ignore this potential ability? Offering foreign language courses to grade school pupils represents a win-win situation for everybody.