George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

Should We Give Up on Foreign Language Programs?

July 5, 2010

Foreign language is on the chopping block in school districts around the country. So when Jay Mathews wrote a piece a few weeks ago about the foreign language study basically being a waste of time I was floored. Now is not the time to grease the rails for further cuts to language programs.

But Mathews's question prompted me to raise another: Why not go whole hog on foreign language? Why are we making such an anemic commitment to this critical subject? If our children study another language, they usually study too little and too late, often making do with a few classes in middle and high school.

In Mathews's defense, he too seems to believe in the whole hog approach, but for him it's all or nothing. In a November column, he stood up for foreign language immersion programs even while dismissing most other language programs. He even claimed that leaders who add some scattered language classes to their course catalogs are more interested in impressing parents than teaching kids.

Seattle's John Stanford International School (JSIS) shows us how well the whole hog approach can work. A recent report on the school sums up its immersion strategy:

"Kindergartners learn math, science, culture and literacy in Spanish or Japanese from native speakers. They learn reading, writing and social studies in English. In subsequent grades, world language and English teachers begin to share the curriculum, ensuring that students learn at least part of every subject in a world language and part in English."

JSIS proves that immersion programs don't have to take time away from other academic work. The school's students are much more likely than their peers in the state as a whole to meet or exceed standards in all tested subjects. And the students actually learn a language. (For more information on JSIS, watch Edutopia's brief profile on the school.)

Of course, such programs are about as rare as a migrant worker at a Sarah Palin meet and greet. So why get worked up over the loss of a few programs that fall so short of the immersion ideal, Mathews asks.

I sympathize with Mathews, but I can't agree with him. All too often, we starve something of resources for decades, and then we kill it when it doesn't show results. The Center for Applied Linguistics reported last year that the share of public elementary schools offering foreign language had plummeted over the previous decade. And their data predate the Great Recession, so things are about to get much worse. It's hard to imagine just how we can create a polyglot nation under these conditions.

In the end, I'm not sure we should give in to Mathews's all-or-nothing vision. Some foreign language is surely better than none, isn't it? But I do think we should keep pushing for much more intensive language instruction -- starting in the early grades. We have to make the case for much more and much better instruction, even in these dark days of budget cuts.

In the meantime, when it comes to foreign language programs, are we right to settle for what we can get? Or is it right to say it's all or nothing?

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