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The Case for Foreign Language Classes

The demands of the new global economy have led school reformers to place overwhelming emphasis on math and science, and to a lesser degree on reading. There is no doubt that these are vital subjects to be mastered. Strangely, however, little attention has been paid to the importance of learning a foreign language, probably because English is considered the lingua franca. This strategy is a big mistake.

While fluency is the primary goal of foreign language instruction, it should not be the sole objective by any means. There is also the matter of learning about the cultural values of the people. These include such things as manners and traditions. Executives who do business abroad know how urgent it is to overcome our hubris. More than one deal has been undermined by failure to understand the customs of others. That's because a lot of business is conducted in social situations. It helps explain why American corporations spend heavily on cram courses offered by Berlitz et al. when they would be better advised to fund classes offered by public schools, not only for their own self- interest but for the good of the country as a whole.

Nevertheless, foreign language classes continue to be widely viewed as options, rather than as necessities. By treating them that way, we shortchange students. Yet, there are some hopeful signs. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a higher percentage of students are studying a foreign language than at any time in history. A Gallup Poll in 2005 found that 46 percent of those surveyed want more education in foreign languages for children.

So far so good. But if one of the goals of foreign language instruction is to prepare students to compete in the global economy, there's another consideration. The real need is for strategic languages, which include Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Arabic and Farsi, and for understanding the customs of the countries involved. The trouble is that it takes an average English speaker 1,320 hours to become proficient in Mandarin, for example, according to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats. This compares with 480 hours to learn Spanish, French or Italian. Then there's the question of classifying ability. The FSI uses five levels, with "1" meaning that the student can handle only the simplest social situations, and "5" being rarely assigned to anyone but a native speaker. In Arabic, for example, there's also a distinct difference between Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial dialects.

Our competitors recognize this importance. Schools within the European Union, for example, are moving toward requiring all secondary school students to learn at least two languages in addition to their native tongue. To achieve this goal, almost all EU countries start compulsory instruction in a foreign language in elementary school. The U.S. is slowly beginning to stress early childhood instruction in strategic languages because younger children are better able to master the pronunciation and intonation of foreign words. At last count, 50,000 elementary and secondary school students were studying Mandarin, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. This compares with 5,000 students at both levels in 2000.

One of the problems is finding enough qualified teachers in strategic languages. It may be necessary in the short run to waive certification for teachers who have experience in their native countries and to provide mentors to help them overcome the cultural shock that invariably occurs. Whatever it takes is worth doing in light of the rapidly changing economy that students enter. The people of the world understand us more than we understand them. That's a luxury we can no longer afford.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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