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Lesson 6.16

Language Learning:
How Not to Raise Ugly Americans

For American kids, the hardest language in the world is…

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America is a tossed salad of languages. As California's population has grown through immigration from all over the planet, its students have reflected that diversity. America's multi-lingual character has everything to do with the recent history of immigration. Unfortunately, it has rather little to do with education that children receive in schools.

Love in Stone

Few American K-12 school systems seriously embrace the multi-year work of preparing students to build proficiency in a language other than English. Mastery of a foreign language is simply not expected of most American children.

This is quite a blind spot.

Patricia Kuhl studies language acquisition in babies. She has found that children learn the sounds of language very early, and that the aptitude for identifying the sounds of language declines sharply with age. Her TED Talk on the subject is well worth watching.

Some Languages Are Harder Than Others

In the last two decades, China has transformed itself from being economically isolated to being vitally connected to every part of the world market, including America. Arabic-speaking countries have become vitally important to America. But few American students even have the option to learn these languages during their pre-teen years, when they are linguistic sponges.

California requires zero years of foreign language instruction in elementary and middle school.

Research on language and brain development finds that until about age six or seven, children are “linguistic geniuses”. This ability steadily declines as you grow older. It is incredibly important to start to learn a second language when you are young. America's current tendency to leave foreign language instruction to middle and high school years is devastating from the perspective of results. Most nations require foreign language instruction in several elementary and middle school grades, when kids are good at learning them. California requires zero years of foreign language instruction in elementary and middle school.

To its slight credit, California has at least taken steps to highlight the value of knowing multiple languages by creating The State Seal of Biliteracy. This program recognizes high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English.

Almost all countries in the European Union require foreign language study beginning in elementary school

Outside the United States, multilingualism is widespread. In China, for example, students learn their local dialect as well as Mandarin and, more recently, English. America's chronic weakness in language instruction comes from a long history of ambivalence. Almost all countries in the European Union require foreign language study beginning in elementary school, and many choose English. Hey, why not just expect the rest of the world to learn English? (Yes, that was rhetorical.)

For English speakers, some languages are more difficult to master than others. According to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, it takes an average English speaker 2,200 hours to become proficient in Mandarin or Arabic, but only 600 hours to learn Spanish, French or Italian.

And the hardest language in the world for native English speakers? Japanese. The written language uses ideograms based on Chinese characters, but the characters can be pronounced in different ways depending on context. It also features nuances to express humility and respect that flummox many Americans.

Next Steps

Learn more from these sites:

  • The California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE) provides great resources for parents and teachers.
  • Some school districts in California have developed robust dual language pathways, including San Francisco Unified.
  • Speaking in Tongues: 4 kids. 4 languages. 1 city. 1 world is a documentary that follows four San Francisco students as they become bilingual.
  • The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages offers tips for parents who want to advocate for language programs in their communities.
  • Looking for ways to support your student learning a second language? Check out this article from GreatSchools.
  • More research on the benefits of bilingualism from the New York Times: The Superior Social Skills of Bilinguals.

Review

Children learn languages most readily and fluently before puberty. How many years of foreign language instruction does California require schools to provide for students in grades K-5?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 27, 2016 at 3:08 pm
Take a closer look at the research on the brain benefits of bilingual education. An article from NPR--How Learning Happens-- finds good news in the areas of attention, empathy, reading, school performance and engagement. There are also some long term benefits-- protection against cognitive decline and dementia.

http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/497943749/6-potential-brain-benefits-of-bilingual-education?
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 15, 2016 at 11:50 am
Thanks everyone for reading this closely and spotting some glitches in this beta version.
The choices in the review question above will be modified to add one more option.
That option will be 4. zero. Then you will be able to select the right answer.
user avatar
Pepe October 12, 2016 at 10:37 pm
This is the second questions on here that has no answer.
After reading the lesson I would like to know what the correct answer is
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 3, 2016 at 11:49 am
California public schools or districts may award students a "seal of biliteracy" on their transcript or diploma in recognition of proficiency in two languages. http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/el/er/ssbfaq.asp
user avatar
Angelica Manriquez February 29, 2016 at 6:40 pm
How can elementary school have these opportunities?
user avatar
Julissa Salamanca March 27, 2015 at 12:28 pm
Our school district has a Two-Way Immersion Charter School to offer the option for students to learn Spanish. It's an amazing program!
user avatar
Paul Muench January 18, 2015 at 7:13 am
Of all the skills that schools can teach, this seems like the one set of skills that genuinely deserve to be called a 21st century skills.
user avatar
Gavin Payne June 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm
As if the justification for being multilingual wasn't enough that it helps kids be more academically and culturally adept in our global economy, recent research underscores that fluency in multiple languages increases core cognitive functioning.
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