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Positive Signs for Foreign-Language Acquisition

For too long, the U.S. deservedly had the reputation for being hard of hearing when it came to learning foreign languages. Public schools typically offered only Spanish, French or Latin. Occasionally, German and Italian were on the menu. But this is rapidly changing for several reasons.

Utah serves as a model ("The Power of the Bilingual Brain," Time, Jul. 29). It is home to the most ambitious total-immersion foreign-language program in U.S. history. When the program began in 2009, there were 1,400 students in 25 schools across the state. This fall will see 20,000 students in 100 schools. Although Spanish and French remain popular, Mandarin is quickly catching up, as first-graders learn the language.

I'm heartened to see this because I've long believed that the study of foreign languages pays off in many ways. In a global economy, fluency in a foreign language gives students a tremendous advantage in landing a job. But there is also research showing that learning a foreign language has both short-term and long-term positive effects on the brain. Multilingual people are better at understanding conflicting ideas and tend to be more resistant to dementia.

Nevertheless, it's important to be realistic. There is a difference in the difficulty of foreign language acquisition. According to the Foreign Language Institute, which trains American diplomats, the average English speaker needs to spend 1,320 hours to become proficient in Mandarin. This compares with 480 hours to reach the same level in Spanish, French or Italian. That's because Mandarin is tonal, requiring mastery of thousands of characters. Perhaps that's why it's so vital to begin teaching foreign languages to children.

One of the problems in duplicating what is taking place in Utah is the lack of licensed teachers. To meet the demand, some school districts are using guest-worker visas to bring teachers from China and Taiwan. Other districts participate in a program set up by Hanban, a Chinese government organization that pays schools about $3,500 and provides housing and local transportation for two years. I'm hoping that universities here will make greater efforts to train teachers of Mandarin and other strategic languages. The need has never been greater.

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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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