This generation of K-12 students is growing up in a society that is increasingly bilingual. Foreign language requirements have long been a core requirement for high school graduation and are also part of most arts-based college degree programs. Along with Spanish, languages like French and German are common options for students.
But just how "foreign" is Spanish in today's society? The U.S. Census estimates that there are 50.5 million Hispanic people living in America, and another 3.7 who are residents of Puerto Rico. This number represents a 43 percent increase in the recorded Hispanic population from 2000 to 2010 at a rate four times faster than the rest of the U.S. population. Further, 35 million children 5 and over spoke Spanish at home in 2010. English as a second language K-12 programs have existed for decades, but maybe that program should be expanded.
Should English-speaking K-12 students be required to learn Spanish? Let's take that question one step further: should bilingual learning be part of every U.S. classroom, no matter what the subject?
Some individual school districts have already taken the initiative to make dual-language programs a reality. The Irving Independent School District in Texas started a bilingual elementary program 10 years ago. Students can opt to learn in an environment that is taught 50 percent in English and 50 percent in Spanish. In Irving, 70 percent of the student population is Hispanic. Critics of the program cite the usual reason that my grandmother may have listed against American students learning a foreign language in school classrooms: Americans should speak ENGLISH. There is also some concern about whether each language can truly be mastered if it is sharing classroom time with the other.
Studies in language development, however, show that the more exposure young children have to all languages actually gives them a distinct academic advantage throughout life. Bilingual children are able to focus more intently on the topics at hand and avoid distractions from academic pursuits. They are also able to demonstrate higher levels of cognitive flexibility, or the ability to change responses based on environment and circumstances.
For children to truly see the full potential multi-lingualism has on learning, exposure to non-native languages should actually begin long before Kindergarten. Even children who learn their first Spanish words at the age of 5 can benefit from dual language curriculum though. Learning is learning. The more that children can take advantage of new concepts, the more in tune their brains will be to all learning throughout life. Some studies have also found that the aging of the brain is slower and the employment rate is higher in adults with bilingual capabilities. Why not set kids up for success and strengthen long-term brain health while we are at it?
There are also the cultural benefits to children learning two languages together. The children who come from English-speaking homes can lend their language expertise to friends from Spanish-speaking homes, and vice versa. Contemporary communication technology has eliminated many global barriers when it comes to socialization and even doing business. It makes sense that language boundaries should also come down and with help from our K-12 education system.
Dual language programs show students a broader world view, whatever the native language of the student, and lead to greater opportunities for collaborative learning. We should not limit what children learn based on outdated principles masked in patriotism. All K-12 students should have Spanish and English fluency by graduation.
What is your opinion on mandating bi-lingual education programs in the future?