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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.
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.
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.
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