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Thursday, January 13, 2011

The language's OUR problem

It's an old joke, but I'll start with it.

What do you call someone who can speak two languages?

Answer:  Bilingual.

What do you call someone who can speak three languages?

Answer:  Trilingual.

What do you call someone who can speak one language?

Answer:  American.

In Kansas, students are currently encouraged to take two units of a foreign language.  Of course, these are high school requirements when anybody who has done any research on learning a language knows that it is easier to learn language at a very young age.  So, most of our schools are already missing this boat.

But I digress. I'll work with what we DO have in place.

Our kids come to 9th grade and have very little experience with a foreign language other than trying to converse with students that are either immigrants or in a foreign exchange program.  Thankfully, we recognize that there is a need for our students to learn foreign language and so we offer them an option or two.

These options in Kansas almost always include Spanish (and are often limited to ONLY Spanish) and then something romantic like French, cultural like German (think Hays), or dead like Latin.

Spanish is at least practical...particularly at the local level.  As Mexican immigrants continue to stream into the United States in search of a better life, communities that provide work for these families will also need to provide goods and services to them.  This requires communication.

I'm not going to get into a debate about whether we should learn Spanish or they should learn English.  For me, that is a moot point.  If I own a business and I want to sell them something and they can't speak English, I have two options:  1) Find a way to communicate or 2) Lose their business to someone else.  Period.  I only have control over MY situation and I don't want to waste my time complaining about something I cannot control.

Our kids who are planning to live in communities in which they will sell to or SERVE people who speak a different language, would certainly benefit from learning that language.  This would include medical professionals, business owners, educators, etc.

However, what I think we are missing is that we do not want to limit our kids to be competitive locally.  We need them to also be competitive globally.

In the global scheme of things if my child plans to sell goods and services (or even just serve) the world, learning Spanish is not a high priority.  It's not even on the radar.  Neither is learning French, German, or Latin.  What language DOES my child need to learn?  Well, who is the global competition?

The United States used to be the bottom line.  Everyone knew that.  Everyone else taught their kids English so they could compete.

In case you haven't noticed, things are changing.

It's time that we learn some lessons from the rest of the world.  At this time in our country, I think it is critical that we begin offering opportunities for our kids to learn languages that will help them be globally Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, or even Arabic.

It boils down to each community's priorities.  In Kansas, we have "local control."  Do we want to prepare our kids to be successful at home, abroad, or both?

The world is getting smaller everyday.  We want OUR kids to help shape it.  Their ability to communicate will be critical.

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