The landscape of global power is a rapidly changing one, as of late. In the United States, this breeds paranoia about the future of our role in the world. With students in competitor countries like Finland and South Korea outperforming Americans, the fate of our schools has come into focus as a symbol of those fears. Amidst these developments, world language education has been cut across the nation, with schools and universities shifting their focus away from language and international studies towards subjects judged more critical – most often, maths and sciences. However, this lack of emphasis on world languages is more problematic than beneficial, and it stems from a deeply flawed analysis of the current situation.
Between 1997 and 2008, there was a 6 percent drop in the number of American elementary schools offering foreign language education; a 17 percent drop occurred in middle schools in the same period. And, while a vast majority of high schools offer those courses, less than half of students are actually enrolled in one. In the US, this is partially the result of budget cuts and the demands imposed by No Child Left Behind as well as a response to international competition. As foreign language competence is ever more crucial in the global economy and international affairs, its presence in schools is diminishing.
Those who argue against the importance of world languages in schools perceive the changing modern landscape differently. Our increased interconnectedness, coupled with technological advancement in the realm of communication, supposedly renders the study of languages other than one’s own useless. The case is especially strong for Anglophones, whose native tongue is already so prevalent in media and international affairs. Lawrence Summers, the economist and former president of Harvard University, has argued that in a modern, globally minded American educational system, world languages will become obsolete, replaced by increasingly sophisticated machine translators. Why spend time and money on a skill that could be outsourced to a device, when there are so many other areas of study in which we must improve?
One answer comes from the Asia Society’s Vice President Vivien Stewart: “People talk about their concern that the U.S. is behind other countries in math and science, but we are much further behind the rest of the industrialized world in language learning than we are in math and science,” she says. “In almost every country, it’s compulsory. In almost all of them, it starts in kindergarten. In almost all of them, it goes on for several years. That’s a huge difference.” And the question of competitiveness is not only applicable to a globalized economy. In the wake of September 11, the American government has emphasized focus on security and diplomacy. With this change of focus, the government has found a severe deficiency of individuals with skills in “national security languages” important in diplomacy and defense, like Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Farsi, and Turkish.
Beyond remaining competitive, students experience significant personal and intellectual gain from language study. Studies by neurologists like Ellen Bialystok of York University have shown that competence in multiple languages improves children’s cognitive function and aids with multitasking. More abstractly, it promotes the skills necessary to navigate the rest of the academic and social environment; and, in the long term, it has even been demonstrated to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. The teaching of algebra is often justified by the argument that it provides reasoning and logic skills, teaching students “how to think”: this is equally the case with world language study, but the latter also has the social benefits of allowing children a glimpse into another culture. Tolerance and appreciation of diversity are as key to maintaining America’s relationships in the world as math skills and business acumen – and, in some ways, perhaps more so.
World languages are vital to education because they at once foster, reflect and facilitate the types of interactions that are vital to the human experience. The purpose of education, after all, is to prepare young people to succeed in their changing world, and to make them engaged, competent citizens of their countries and their planet. As Ludwig Wittgenstein, the renowned Austrian linguistic philosopher, once said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Those limits need to be pushed.
Article by Noa Gur-Arie, MoCo Student staff opinions writer