Which school do you want to support?
Californians speak many world languages, but not because the state's schools are good at teaching them to kids.
California's multi-lingual diversity has everything to do with the recent history of immigration.
Unfortunately, it has little to do with the education that children receive in schools.
Research on language and brain development finds that until about age six or seven, children are “linguistic geniuses”, innately capable of discerning and reproducing the sounds of language with perfect fidelity and comparatively little effort.
Patricia Kuhl studies language acquisition, especially 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.
English is the world's most widely-spoken second language. Over a billion people in the world have learned to speak it, partly as a historic result of British imperialism and partly as a result of economic good fortune. America's unofficial, low-effort strategy for global communication has been "you learn English, then we can talk."
California requires zero years of world language instruction in elementary and middle school.
Learning a language takes time and effort at the right time of life. Unfortunately, few school systems in the US provide what it takes for students to become proficient in a language other than English. For most American children, mastery of a second language is simply not expected.
Few American students even have the option to learn world languages during their pre-teen years, when they are linguistic sponges. California requires zero years of world language instruction during elementary and middle school.
This is quite a blind spot.
Outside the United States, multilingualism is ordinary. For example, most nations in Europe require foreign language instruction during several elementary and middle school grades.
Almost all countries in the European Union require foreign language study beginning in elementary school
Many countries that were once considered developing nations transformed their economies partly by making multilingualism a national educational priority. China, for example, transformed itself from being economically isolated to being vitally connected to the world market, including America. Students throughout China learn their local dialect as well as Mandarin and, more recently, English or other languages.
Many have argued that Americans need to learn how to communicate across a language barrier in order to keep up.
Brilliant young people from around the world learn English so they can apply to colleges in America. Historically, this inflow of talent has benefitted the U.S. massively. Countries around the world are improving their college programs, though. The case for students to come to the US for an expensive college education is becoming less clear. According to the U.S. State Department, what was once an almost totally one-way flow of students into the U.S. for college is already becoming more complex. Some young Americans are finding that it may make sense to learn other languages so that they can apply to excellent, less expensive colleges outside the U.S.
American students who cannot communicate in other languages may find their educational options constrained. For example, China has begun to reverse gears in its strategy for international communication, with a greater expectation that others should learn to speak Mandarin, and Chinese student should redouble their focus on Chinese history and culture.
Translating from one language to another was once a very difficult process involving big books printed in a tiny font. Today, it is already fairly easy to get a decent translation of most anything with the help of a smartphone or computer. In 2023 the Ed100 team began making heavy use of ChatGPT to convert English material to Spanish. (Yes, a real human tweaks the final edits, but A.I. technology is very helpful in the process.)
For people who are motivated to learn a language, the tools for doing so are poised for big improvement. For example, practicing a language in conversation with an A.I. tutor makes a lot of sense. In effect, every student will have access to a virtual tutor.
For those who are less motivated to become proficient at a language, the advance of language technology may have the opposite motivational effect: Why should I do the hard work of learning a language if my phone can translate for me whenever I need it?
For American English speakers, some languages are more difficult to master than others. According to the Foreign Service Institute, which trains US diplomats, an average adult English speaker needs 600 hours to become proficient in many European languages including Spanish and Italian. More difficult languages take up to 2,200 class hours in their program.
Among the languages that the institute categorizes as super-hard (yes, really), the thorniest of all for native English speakers is probably 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 degrees of familiarity, humility and respect that flummox many Americans. (The Korean language shares this challenge, but has the advantage of an easy-to-learn writing system.)
It's worth acknowledging that this is a significant number of hours. For context, there are 180 days of instruction in a typical school year. Of course, young children can learn languages much quicker than aspiring diplomats can, if they feel motivated.
California's original 1849 state constitution was written in both English and Spanish, but public opinion has not always embraced multilingualism. In 1998, California voters rejected bilingual education by passing Proposition 227, which required that most classes in California public schools be taught in English. Voters overturned that initiative by passing another, Proposition 58, in 2016.
When California's ban on bilingual education ended, demand for multi-lingual teachers skyrocketed. School districts with large numbers of English Language Learners strained to offer more dual language learning opportunities, a topic we explore in the Ed100 blog.
The state's unclear stance toward multilingualism goes deeper. World language study is not required for high school graduation by the state of California — from the state's perspective it's an elective. But school districts have the authority to add their own graduation requirements, and many do so. Students who want to qualify for a public four-year college in California must find room in their class schedule to take at least two years of world language. Some California school districts split the difference, requiring one year.
The state took a symbolic step to highlight the value of multilingualism by creating the nation's first State Seal of Biliteracy in 2008. Now available as an option in virtually all states, this program encourages districts to recognize high school graduates who have attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English.
In the 2021-22 school year, California recognized 57,582 students across 1,242 high schools with this seal — about 13% of diplomas. Many qualified students are missing out. The California Department of Education hopes to expand this number to 150,000 students through the Global California 2030 program. To request seals for graduating students at your school, ask your school district.
America has a long history of "assimilating" immigrant groups, culturally and linguistically. Preserving the language skills that immigrant children bring with them has not been consistently viewed as important.
In 2018, California formally adopted the term "world language" in the education code. The change is meant to convey that no language is “foreign” in California.
Learn more from these sites:
Search all lesson and blog content here.
Login with Email
We will send your Login Link to your email
address. Click on the link and you will be
logged into Ed100. No more passwords to