Bilingual is Better

I was one of those very lucky kids who attended a dual language immersion school. Although I moved around a lot as a child — living in 5 countries in 3 continents by the time I was 14 — I spent five solid years at my mother’s alma mater back in Peru and I was instructed mostly in English from 4th to 8th grade.

As far as I remember, I only had a handful of courses, including Historia and Geografía del Perú, in Spanish. The rest of my school days were spent immersed in English in a Spanish-speaking country. By the time I entered 5th grade, my private school required all its students to take up a third language. I chose French, but I could’ve chosen Italian or German just as easily.

So, I thought it very strange when I moved to the States and found out that, although offered, I didn’t really have to take a “foreign language,” until I got to high school. And then, I only needed two years of this foreign language in order to graduate. In reality, since I already spoke a foreign language — as in my native Spanish — I could’ve very well taken a test and I could’ve been exempted from this requirement.

But because I’d been taking French since 5th grade — albeit only a couple of times a week — I signed up for it as one of my electives when I entered my neighborhood’s junior high school in Miami, and I continued taking it until my junior year in high school. I eventually picked it up again as a sophomore at the University of Florida (in fact, you can almost say college French is the reason why Ana and I are friends today). Since then, I’ve taken courses at the Alliance Française on and off for the last 15 years.

All this to prove that I’m obviously a huge lover of languages and to confess that if I had the money, I would spend the rest of my life traveling and learning other languages. And so, it pains me to no end to read articles like the one from Forbes Ana sent me earlier this morning. Titled “America’s Foreign Language Deficit,” and written by two prominent Cornell University professors, the article exposes the sad state of affairs this nation is facing in terms of teaching its students foreign languages.

While I love to think that more and more people are embracing bilingualism in this country, the reality when it comes to foreign language offerings available to our students is pretty bleak. Check out some of these discouraging figures from the Forbes article :

  • The percentage of public and private elementary schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 31 to 25 percent from 1997 to 2008.
  • Instruction in public elementary schools dropped from 24 percent to 15 percent, with rural districts hit the hardest.
  • The percentage of all middle schools offering foreign language instruction decreased from 75 to 58 percent.
  • About 25 percent of elementary schools and 30 percent of middle schools report a shortage of qualified foreign language teachers.
  • In 2009-2010, only 50.7 percent of higher education institutions required foreign language study for a baccalaureate, down from 67.5 percent in 1994-1995. And many colleges and universities have reduced or eliminated instructional offerings in “less popular” languages.

Speaking more than one language is an invaluable gift, but in a highly connected world like the one we live in today, it’s become more of an indispensable skill.

As fierce proponents and supporters of bilingualism, Ana and I want to make sure that our voices — and that of all the other parents who believe bilingual is better — are heard loud and clear by anyone and everyone who has a say in changing the discouraging numbers above. We’re in the process of trying to figure out how to do that, and we promise to let you know when we do. In the meantime, I leave you with this call to action by the authors of the Forbes’ article:

We ask parents to urge their children to attain proficiency in a foreign language, whether or not schools require them to do so; PTAs to lobby school boards; faculty members and deans in colleges and universities to re-visit foreign language requirements; readers of Forbes to write to their elected representatives.

{Photo via Fiona Bradley}

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