What happens when schools stop teaching foreign languages?

By: Kellen MacGregor, page editor

No matter how hard one tries, foreign language is inescapable. From items on menus that are nearly impossible to pronounce, to aiding visitors who may not speak your native tongue, learning foreign languages and cultures has forever been – and will continue to be – a crucial aspect of education, considering the globalized, interconnected world in which we live currently.

As of a 2011 study conducted by the United States Census Bureau, roughly 21 percent of Americans speak another language besides English. Though the United States of America has no official language, the overwhelming majority of citizens speak English. Nonetheless, various languages are spoken countrywide by non-Anglophones, ranging from Bengali to Dutch.

In an attempt to promote bilingualism within the Tri-Cities, Ann De Corte, French instructor, and her students have continued to conduct French lessons for elementary school students.

“Over the past 5 years, the intensity of my students teaching French has been evolving in a very positive way,” says De Corte. “By that, I mean that it’s more student led, the games are more organized and efficient and the relationship we build with the kids is closer when we can teach the same class in one school year.”

In November of 2017, De Corte’s students taught a French class to fifth-graders at McAlear-Sawden Elementary for the fourth time. On March 16, the group returned greeted by eager schoolchildren, ready to learn. Unbeknown to the instructors, however, these students haven’t had a French class in 2 years.

“Foreign languages have been moved to secondary education in order to fulfill requirements prior to graduation,” says Michael Connors, principal of McAlear-Sawden. “There was, however, a need for more educators, though there were not enough candidates to hire.”

Brian Johnson, director of curriculum of Bay City Public Schools, was unavailable for comment.

With foreign language education delayed until middle school across Bay City Public Schools, many wonder how students will be prepared beforehand. Currently, a requirement to graduate within the district consists of two credits of a foreign language.

There are numerous benefits to learning another language, and these are especially true when the learners are young. According to studies conducted by Cornell Language Acquisition Lab, bilingual youngsters are less prone to distractions from external stimuli. Another study by Frontiers Academy, a trilingual elementary school in Anaheim, CA., shows that once children reach ages 8 to 10, their abilities to learn foreign languages lessen.

So, does this mean children older than 8 can no longer learn foreign languages? Not exactly.

The younger the child, the more absorbent the brain. In other words, exposing foreign languages to children as early as possible can increase their capacity to comprehend a language’s syntax, grammar, orthography and other aspects, eventually leading to fluency.

We as a community are doing no favors to our youngsters by depriving them of essential education at the prime age for learning foreign languages; in fact, we are also putting them at a disadvantage economically.

Take French, for instance. Though 47 million people report to speak the Romance language fluently in the U.S. (primarily in Maine and Louisiana), French is one of the two languages spoken on every continent, along with English. French is also an official language of Canada, the European Union, the United Nations and the Red Cross, which render French an international language.

According to a report by the New American Economy, the number of employers seeking bilingual candidates has increased by 16 percent between 2010 and 2015.

As the planet becomes more globalized, many states, including Michigan, have begun to introduce seals of biliteracy to recognize graduates who “exhibit language proficiency in English and at least one additional world language.” These awards appear on diplomas and transcripts so future employers or universities are aware of their candidate’s bilingualism.

Let’s say that every child in the Tri-Cities is taught French, beginning in preschool until 12th grade. By the end of high school, virtually every student would be fluent, assuming classes are conducted once daily and retained. These high-school graduates would already be one step ahead of monolingual college graduates, especially those who intend to go into business or politics.

Besides French, there are many languages spoken at international levels that require more speakers; Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian are emerging as languages that threaten English’s status as a lingua franca.

By reinstating this particular pedagogy at the elementary level, the next generation will enter this globalized world economy with more ease, more employment opportunities and more knowledge of the world around them.

“As adviser of Delta College’s French Club, I value this community service even more since the district has removed world language from the elementary level,” says De Corte. “Before the removal, the kids could enjoy 45 minutes of French per week, which is nearly enough but still better than nothing at all. My heart melted when a 10-year-old asked me at the end of our lesson how to say ‘sad’ in French.”

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