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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Why don't US elementary schools teach foreign language?

Why don't US elementary schools teach foreign language?

Related Tags: World Languages
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I am currently enrolled in a graduate program, which will certify me as a literacy specialist. We have studied many trends and issues in literacy education. One of the topics we have discussed is whether U.S. elementary schools(K-6)should be teaching foreign language in the curriculum. We are a global society today and the world wide web is connecting us in multiple pathways. We need to become more culturally aware of other students especially with the growing rate of ELL students in U.S. schools today. Researchers have also proven that learning a foreign language helps to develop cognitive skills that improve reading and even math scores. Does your school teach foreign language in elementary school? How is this improving their learning? If not, do you think foreign language should be taught in elementary school? How might we fit foreign language into the curriculum? I would appreciate any comments or suggestions. Thank you.

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Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Hi Susan,

Thanks for your comment! You are SO right!! We ought to be preparing our students for the Global Community to which we already belong. However, US education has not yet caught up on the notion of World Languages for all. I think there are at least two reasons for this, and I will ask our community to add their ideas to the discussion as well.

1) MONEY - I don't like to think this is an issue, but I am sorry to say that the facts bear witness to this as truth. Speaking for California where I live and teach, school funding is a real challenge. We spend less per student than 48 other states, and less than half what is spent in the states at the top of the list. I have classes of 36 students, colleagues who have classes of 40 or more. We have a hard time attracting teachers when they only earn and average of 40,000$ the first year, and not even with fully funded benefits. As for supplies, materials, textbooks... There would have to be increased funding to hire teachers to teach a language and there just isn't enough funding to meet current needs. Many, if not most districts do not even have languages in middle school, let alone elementary.

2) There is a cultural bias for English in the USA. Many Americans do not see the need to speak another language since English "appears" to be the de facto common language around the world. Others took a language for 2 years only and do not remember much - partly because languages have been taught poorly, based on a structural approach only, with little emphasis on communicative proficiency. It is debatable, of course, whether Americans have the mindset that English is enough, but given that we have only a small proportion of the population which is academically proficient in more than one language, I think the debate may be moot.

We also forget that that we look bad in the sight of people when we make little effort to communicate with them in their language, especially when we approach them about doing business. When we expect others to speak "our language" we are showing little respect for their culture, their values, their potential friendship... We also risk not knowing what they really mean, or what they may be saying about us when we don't speak their language. Troubling? Yes. Disrespectful? To be sure.

You may have already heard the joke:
- " What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
- Trilingual.
- What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
- Bilingual.
- What do you call a person who speaks one language?
- American.

Very sad, but all too often true, unfortunately.

It is certainly time to call for a change, just as you mention in your note Susan! We can do better! America is better than this.

What do others think? Please feel free to add your comments to this discussion. I hope to hear from you soon!

Best wishes,

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Hello again,

As a follow up to our discussion, please see this article elsewhere on Edutopia! The data makes our case clear: Languages/bilingualism is profoundly beneficial to students, to cultures and societies, and ultimately, ought to be much more important, especially early on in a students' educational journey. Here is the link:


Also, I am indebted to my ACTFL friend Thomas Sauer for many things, but as he pointed out to me today: schools and districts..."could teach a world language if they wanted to. Plenty of $$ in schools but WL isn't priority." I understand his point, and agree that in many places around the country (ie, USA in our case), and perhaps in other countries as well, World Language instruction is not a priority, especially before High School. Nevertheless, in the 30 years I have been teaching in California, World Languages have not been very high on the priority list for funding either. All in all, the key point is priorities! We find means for the things which matter most to us, even in education.

Best wishes to all,

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