George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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:

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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B's picture

My primary language growing up turned out to be a burden for me as an adult. I studied it all through out school and I still avoid trying to speak it. I am fascinated with language and would love to learn another one but during my education it was not considered a priority. As mentioned in a previous comment, I too have witnessed foreign language class time being taken up for tutoring for low performing students. And at what cost? Teachers are honestly bothered by losing planning time to work with students thus wasting the students' time in a pointless activity when they could be furthering their education. I agree that something is better than nothing. The education in the United States is always being compared to that of other countries. Well what opportunity are we giving our students by hindering their ability to communicate with the outside world. First, there is the removal of the foreign languages and then the arts. As some one who has lost the ability to speak her primary language as well as I should I think that we should offer the opportunity for students to be bilingual with more precision than we are doing so now.

Alex's picture

Giving up on foreign language instruction should not be an option. We should introduce students to foreign language in earlier grades. If it is true that K5 students learn faster than 5th graders, then why is foreign language instruction done in middle school or high school? In many other countries, students are introduced to more than one foreign language, why should our students not have that opportunity? But it is very important that foreign language instruction is given by qualified teachers - teachers that are prepared to teach proper language and grammar. Just as a commitment is made to have highly qualified teachers for content areas such as math, reading, and english; the same commitment should be made when it comes to foreign language.

Luann Smith's picture
Luann Smith
High School Spanish teacher in Portsmouth, VA

I have been teaching Spanish for 33 years, I am also fluent in German. The one thing that I have always dwelt on in my classes is COMMUNICATION. What good is knowing a verb conjugation if you can't ask where the restroom is when you need it. My students know that there are grammar lessons to be learned but they know that I care more whether they can communicate a want, a need, a choice bit of info, so we do a lot of problem based learning in my classroom. I am not saying that my kids come out of Spanish I with fluency, but they can hold a simple conversation and meet basic needs. My upper level students work completely in the L2, give complete multi-media presentations in Spanish and, whenver possible, the projects are based in real world situations where they are communicating outside the classroom.

Finally, to the title of this post. We are not foreign language teachers, we are mentors of second or third language acquisition. The very nomenclature -foreign language- infers that we are out of norm, in fact that we are abnormal. In this day and age being bilingual or even multilingual is not a luxury, it is a necesity.

atllanguages's picture
Atlanta International Language Institute

I like the idea of going "whole hog" as you stated in foreign languages. While an option semester or two isn't going to change American's overall ability to speak a foreign language, inclusion in the core curriculum from a young age could do wonders for the next generations of students. With the world becoming smaller so quickly, today's children will benefit immensely from learning a foreign language.

geelin's picture

Attending a language camp for kids during the holidays would be the perfect addition to your learning. You could learn English, French, Spanish, Italian or Chinese more easily and quickly when away from school and the daily pressures of id tags

Jaime Alvarado's picture
Jaime Alvarado
World Language Teacher-Spanish and ELL

As a Foreign Language teacher, I was appalled by Jay Matthews comments regarding the relevance of foreign language instruction in schools. I was not surprised though by his sentiments. Even though most accredited four year college's admissions requirements state that students must have at least two full years of a language instruction, in many schools it is a secondary thought in the grand scheme of core content. Since the advent of high stakes testing, I have seen the importance of foreign languages be greatly diminished alongside the role of vocational programs, physical education and other "elective" classes. We have all heard the arguments that bilingual education:
1. Has a positive effect on intellectual growth and enriches and enhances a child's mental development
2. Leaves students with more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening
3. Improves a child's understanding of his/her native language
4. Gives a child the ability to communicate with people s/he would otherwise not have the chance to know
5. Opens the door to other cultures and helps a child understand and appreciate people from other countries
6. Gives a student a head start in language requirements for college
7. Increases job opportunities in many careers where knowing another language is a real asset.
(Center for Applied Linguistics)
I feel that foregoing foreign language instruction is a direct assault against multicultural education practices. Our schools are more ethnically diverse now than at any point in American history. In 2005 42% of all students were considered to be part of racial or ethnic minority groups with this number continuing to increase through the coming years. With such diversity in our schools the need to be more inclusive both linguistically and educationally becomes more pressing. Through multicultural education that includes bilingual or multilingual classrooms and programs we are preparing students to acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to function effectively in a pluralistic democratic society (Banks and Banks (1995). Students will be better equipped to interact, negotiate, and communicate with peoples from diverse groups in order to create a civic and moral community that works for the common good (Banks and Banks (1995).

Elaine Linscott's picture

I am a former high school German teacher of a school district in California. My German program began in the tenth grade and the students received a maximum of three years of instruction, which was not enough time to allow them to become really fluent in the language. I agree that the earlier a foreign language is introduced, the better. I pushed to be allowed to teach down in the middle schools, but the funding was not there to allow me to travel between schools. I did institute an exchange program with a partner school in Germany. We alternated hosting 20 German students in the spring and taking 10 of our students over in the summer. My students benefited by having real life reasons to speak German and by developing close friendships with their German counterparts. While the school district garnered praise for fostering international relationships, it was not enough to justify continuing the language program. The school district decided to discontinue German in 2005. I retired and moved away.

Whenever I returned to the school district and talked to fellow foreign language teachers, the thought was that whenever the French teacher retired, that would also be the end of that language program as well. I just went online and am pleased to see that the school district has continued its French and Spanish programs. Those are also programs, though, that started in the middle schools and continued into high school.

Rafa Rafa's picture

First and foremost, Let's use World or Global languages as foreign is not the proper terminology. The problem with language learning and teaching is simply lack of environmental exposure. Language learning is a lifestyle and yet we do not make this presented to the students. I do agree with several post here that Language is beneficial at an early age, when there is an output to use the language outside the classroom and when students are truly motivated to learning the language.

Scott Mozonski's picture

Students shouldn't be forced to learn another language if they don't want to Some schools don't have the money to form and maintain a foreign language class. If students don't enjoy or want to be in the class, it just makes it easier for the students to not try or not get anything out of the class. IIf there was not a requirement for at least two years of language classes, the expense of language textbooks for schools wouldn't be so high and expensive There are limited languages to learn while you're in school The limited amount of languages you can learn while you're in school repels many people. Most schools only offer French, Spanish, and German. If a student wanted to learn a language like Japenese, then they coldn't because their school doesn't offer that language in their language program

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