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Apr 13

A Case for Emphasizing Secondary Language Education in the United States

          In an increasingly globalized world, where technology is increasingly making communication faster and more efficient, it becomes even more pressing for citizens to be competent in other languages. Yet the United States remains the only industrialized country that allows students to graduate from high school without credits in a foreign language. By the time most students begin a second language in middle school at the age of 14, it is often too late for them to become truly proficient in another language. On top of that, only 10 states require some type of second language credits to graduate from high school whereas in many European countries children begin to learn a second language from 6-9 years old, or in some cases 3 years old. This stark difference in the age of when a language is taught may account for the fact that in the United States about 9% of the population is multilingual, whereas in Europe 52.7% of the population is multilingual (World Languages and Cultures).  I believe there needs to be an incorporation of a stronger foreign language program in the United States education system because learning a second language is and will continue to become increasingly important in our connected world. In total, the United States would benefit from emphasizing learning foreign language through economic and job possibilities, creating cosmopolitan citizens, and providing cognitive and personal benefits to the individual.

In our globalized world, it has become even more essential in the job market to know another language. Companies and businesses have a natural desire to expand their existing networks. Having fluency in another language gives an edge on any resume by showing employers potential to converse with an entirely different group of people. Employers would be more apt to send a prospective employee abroad if he or she shows proficiency in another language. An experience abroad has the ability to enhance careers, often leading to promotions and valuable skills dealing with foreign customers. Traveling to another country for a job not only allows for tremendous opportunities for oneself, but also allows a company to broaden its network.  Yet businesses are not the only types of employment where learning another language would be beneficial. Educators will often have students from many different language backgrounds, scientists will need to converse with others in their field from different countries, and those in the entertainment industry can open un their career aspects tenfold if they can effectively learn a second language. Specifically, in jobs dealing with marketing, sales, or technical support, knowing a second language can add between 10% and 15% to your wage (Hazlehurst, 2010).

Moreover, learning a second language allows students to explore and better understand another culture. The overwhelming access to networks of communities all over the world is cut short without a background in the language of the culture itself. Learning a foreign language allows us to better understand a culture by providing a way to interact with locals and break the initial language barrier that holds two people back from fully engaging with each other. The benefits of having more culturally aware students are numerous, and the effects are immeasurable. Learning a second language allows cross-cultural communication, and opens the door to an entire network of people that a person might not have had contact with before. It allows for an exchange for cultural norms and practices, furthering one’s education in respect to life different than their own. It is important to have cosmopolitan citizens, especially in the United States, in order to create a true melting pot society. When traveling to foreign countries, knowing or attempting to learn the local language shows a respect towards another culture.

In addition to the benefits economically and culturally, there is an apt amount of research showing the exponential cognitive and personal benefits of learning another language. Within the standardized test culture, it was found that Elementary students who studied a foreign language scored higher on tests in reading, math, and language arts. This fact alone should motivate proponents of No Child Left Behind, and similar test enthusiasts, to further fund secondary languages in earlier years of education. Furthermore, people who have learned a foreign language show greater cognitive development in mental flexibility, creativity, problem-solving, conceptualizing, and reasoning (Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language). Requiring students to learn a second language at an earlier age will allow many of these skills, skills that are often neglected, to be emphasized in our education system. In my experience, learning a second language requires an entirely different way of learning that fosters creativity in the classroom. For example, learning a second language involves activities such as writing short stories, talking with classmates, watching movies from another culture, and interacting in games. Learning a second language can be done through many different avenues as opposed to math, which must be done in procedures, working out a problem. This freedom to learn in a variety of ways creates an environment in a classroom that teaches multiple ways of learning and skills. Once a language is acquired, many personal benefits become clear. In comparison to monolinguals, foreign language learners have been shown to have sharper memories and better listening skills (The Benefits of Second Language Study 2007). Overall, learning an additional language can significantly improve cognitive abilities and bring added personal benefits.

All of the research and data points to the continued benefits of learning a second language, which I have seen personally reinforced in my experience with other languages. During my junior year, I spent time abroad teaching English to students in Spain at an English Immersion camp called Pueblo Ingles. During my time there, I saw the numerous examples of the advantages of knowing a second language. A couple of the students at the camp knew multiple languages, and it was much easier for them to pick up English. Their pervious knowledge of a variety of languages showed in their abilities to understand new grammar concepts and vocabulary as they were much more used to these cognitive processes.  For students learning English as their second language, the process was much more difficult as the concepts of a new language weren’t as easily understood and they struggled with the new structure. Reflecting on these differences, it was evident that knowing another language provided advantages in further learning.

Additionally, I help tutor English language learners at Penn State University to help with their conversational fluency, along with their grammar concepts. One of the many things I have found while working with these international students, is that many of them find it easier to immerse themselves and learn more about the culture in the United States with a better understanding of English. One of the graduate students I work with has found that learning and improving her English has made her more confident in speaking to students here. It has allowed her to branch out and become immersed in the culture. Learning a second language provides unique opportunities to understand and immerse oneself another culture, that couldn’t be done otherwise.

It becomes even more clear to me the benefits of a second language when considering the influence learning a second language has had on me. I began learning Spanish during middle school, which was noticeably a disadvantage seeing how much easier it would have been to acquire the language at a younger age. Regardless, Spanish has come to offer me a whole new array of possibilities for the future. When working for a local restaurant, I was noticeably better at my job then other waiters because I could communicate with my Spanish-speaking co-workers. My effectiveness as waitress and co-worker was increased, and eventually led to my pay raise. Additionally, internships abroad are now options for me, that wouldn’t be possible without my background in Spanish. I am currently able to travel to Costa Rica to teach English, in part because of my fluency in another language.

In such an interconnected world, it can only be a disadvantage not to learn a second language. In the aspect of employment, a second language allows for new opportunities, experiences, and an edge when applying for jobs. Additionally, a second language allows for citizens to become more culturally aware, reaping benefits in terms of more cosmopolitan citizenship. Moreover, learning a second language can benefit a person in various cognitive aspects and improve ones life. I’ve personally seen and experienced the many benefits of learning a second language, and continue to find the employment, citizenship, and cognitive benefits to be numerous. In total, I believe that learning a second language should be more emphasized in the United States education system.

Bibliography

“Cognitive Benefits of Learning a Second Language.” American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Duke University, 2007. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

Hazlehurst, Jeremy. “Learning a foreign language: Now you’re talking.” The Guardian. N.p., 27 Aug. 2010. Web. 23 Mar. 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010/aug/28/learning-foreign-language-boost-career>.

“Second Language Benefits.” Your Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2013. <http://reference.yourdictionary.com/other-languages/Second-language-benefits.html>.

“The Benefits of Second Language Study .” Connecticut State Department of Education. NEA Research, Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

<http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/PDF/Curriculum/Curriculum_Root_Web_Folder/BenefitsofSecondLanguage.pdf>.

“Why Learn Languages? .” World Languages and Cultures. Vistawide, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2013. <http://www.vistawide.com/languages/why_languages.htm>.