Thursday, April 13, 2017

Value (Not Profit) in Studying a Foreign Language

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say." -- Nephew Fred, A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)

Nashville Public Radio reporter Blake Farmer asked this question in the article linked above on April 11, 2017.  He writes that about 11% of Tennessee high school graduates don't receive the required two years of foreign language instruction.  Instead, the state allows them an exemption, with only their parents' consent as a prerequisite.  Opponents of this practice argue that skipping the foreign language classes will make it difficult for these students to get into college, but proponents point out that most Tennessee graduates won't be going on to college anyway, and that in areas with high unemployment, classes like welding--which will help students earn technical certifications and find jobs--are more valuable than French or Spanish.

Naturally this raises questions about why high schools and colleges require foreign language credits in the first place, particularly for students in majors or career tracks where proficiency in a second language will not be an obvious need.  Should these requirements be eliminated in favor of classes with more immediate, practical value?

You can make an argument about the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, including delayed onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.  But until the U.S. is ready to completely overhaul language education practices in public schools (for example, by implementing dual-immersion programs in K through 5), most students will not achieve the degree of fluency necessary to reap those benefits.

What, then, is the value of a meager two years of foreign language study for a rural Tennessee student in an area of severe unemployment?

One possible benefit is greater empathy toward others.  At least one study has shown this effect not only in bilingual children, but in children who are simply exposed to another language on a regular basis.

My own experience of studying Russian and skyping weekly with a citizen of Moscow has reinforced this idea.  Studying a foreign language isn’t just a healthy workout for the brain; languages are spoken by people, and you cannot divorce a language from the people who speak it and their culture.  Studying Spanish, for example, provides a window into Spanish-speaking cultures, and fosters empathy for the people who hail from them.

The ongoing debate about immigration is marked by a lack of empathy on the part of those who argue for building a wall, for banning refugees, for isolationism.  If we can combat this problem with foreign language instruction in public schools, shouldn’t we?

Perhaps this raises a larger question: what is the primary purpose of public education?  Is it simply to prepare students for the job market?  Or is it to create thoughtful, creative, civically engaged, and well-rounded individuals?  If we believe it is the latter, then public schools across the country must take foreign language learning more seriously than they currently do.

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