When my daughter was four, her pre-kindergarten class in the Fort Worth public school system taught her in both Spanish and English. The federally funded program used the two languages on alternate days.
The purpose was simple: Young kids learn languages much more easily than older kids or adults do, so this was the best time to introduce them. My daughter picked up Spanish very quickly and enjoyed using it. Every parent I spoke with was thrilled with the program.
But then, under the leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Congress started cutting the budget, and the language program was cancelled after just a year. My daughter, now a senior in high school, has never taken any foreign-language classes. The Spanish she learned as a 4-year-old has been long since forgotten.
I was reminded of all this when I read that the parents of a fifth-grader in the Grapevine-Colleyville school district had pulled their daughter out of her Spanish- language class. The district made Spanish mandatory for the kids, but only for two days a week. The parents felt the school district was making life easier for Hispanic immigrants by making other students study Spanish – and they didn’t like that.
They apparently hoped that taking their daughter out of Spanish class would make more Mexican immigrants learn English. The kid now sits in the library during Spanish class, reading a book about the country of France. French is not offensive to the parents.
If you follow that line of reasoning, why should our kids learn any languages at all? Maybe if we all kept our kids from learning foreign languages, the rest of the world would have to learn English. Perfect!
But that is already happening. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 200 million Chinese elementary school children are studying English, a compulsory subject. And if you wonder why so many high-tech jobs are being outsourced to India, you might consider that Indians’ ability to speak English and other languages has something to do with it.
By contrast, only 31 percent of American elementary schools even teach a foreign language, and only 44 percent of high school students take any foreign-language classes. And these are just introductory classes, so fluency is not even part of the equation.
What is happening is that other countries have seen the need to master other languages – and, therefore, reap the benefits. Whether it’s for trade, business growth, or international relations, the rest of the world sees foreign languages as ever more important as the world gets smaller.
Americans have long put foreign-language learning on the back burner, and the trend has gotten worse thanks to budget cuts in recent years, as we continue to fall behind the rest of the world in science, math, and other disciplines. But there also is a cultural resonance. If we are the best country in the world, the most powerful and the richest, then why should our kids have to learn some language from what we consider to be the Third World?
There is another benefit to learning a foreign language. Tackling new verb tenses, vocabulary, and syntax leads students to examine their native language and to understand it better.
About a billion people claim Spanish as their native tongue, more than all the native English speakers in the world. Our neighbors in Central and South America speak Spanish, and as trade agreements open up the borders, it is clearer than ever that our future business and political leaders should speak it as well.
Illegal immigration is a problem that this country has been avoiding for decades. But the argument that some acceptance of Spanish in our media, culture, and government draws more illegal immigrants here is pathetic. English is the dominant language in America and will continue to be, and those immigrants coming to our shores know they have to learn it to succeed.
If the answer to stopping illegal immigration is to stop our kids from learning languages, we might as well cancel their algebra classes, too, since those ancient Greek mathematicians tolerated homosexuality. The communist Russians made plenty of discoveries in physics and chemistry, so we might as well throw that stuff out too. Our enemies and competitors around the world would certainly applaud such tactics.
But here’s a lesson everyone should learn: When education becomes a pawn in a political battle, the kids lose and society loses. The Chinese have figured that out. About 2,500 years before the current government started insisting that their kids learn the ABCs, one of their great military strategists wrote, “Know thy enemy.” And, he might have added, know the language of thy business partner and thy neighbor.