“With all the emphasis on 21st-century skills, with the globalization of the economy and the world becoming smaller because of technology, we have so many opportunities out there, and I think we’re behind — really, we’re behind most nations — in teaching second languages.” This statement by Desa Dawson, president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, proves how crucial it is for schools to introduce comprehensive world language programs. In the United States, less than 25% of students study a world language in school, contrary to 92% of Europe’s students who begin their world language learning as early as the age of six. Learning a different language gives students insight into different cultures around the world as well as a toolkit for communicating with people of different nationalities. Our students are the future of our country and it is crucial that they have these skills in life. California schools should provide comprehensive world language programs because it would expand students’ cultural worldview, help bridge the gap between diverse races, and ensure that students don’t fall behind in world language education.
Introducing a comprehensive world language program is essential if we are to expand students’ cultural understanding of our world. The language of a nationality or country is closely intertwined with its culture and traditions. It cannot be taken out of this context. For example, every language has its own set of idioms. If we were to translate them verbatim into the English language, disregarding any cultural context, the idioms wouldn’t make sense. In the same way, if students learn the Chinese language without learning about Chinese culture, their understanding would be limited to what they've learned on paper. They would lose any understanding of the intangibles such as the culture, traditions and unspoken social customs.
Guest teacher programs are an effective way of bringing a cultural context to language learning. The Chinese guest teacher program began in 2007 and it is now implemented within 30 states—Utah, North Carolina and Ohio being the largest of them. Schools in Bradenton, Florida are already preparing their second language students for a more complete cultural worldview. Xu Dou, a Chinese guest teacher in a Bradenton middle school, centers his lessons on Chinese traditions, including the writing of Chinese characters. Says Xu Dou, “If you want to learn real Chinese, you have to learn how to write Chinese characters... an indispensable part of Chinese tradition.”
Similarly, the College Board, a non-profit organization that runs SAT and AP exams for the US, understood the benefits of providing a holistic view on language when it created an AP program in Chinese language and culture, which is similar to the second year program taught in colleges throughout China. If the College Board recognizes the importance of introducing a “cultural world language” program, it is time that the state of California catches on. Spanish teacher Caitlin Santin of Ross School, California, describes learning a second language as an experience that “opened up [her] world to different cultures and how different people live." Second language programs would not be complete without an understanding of the culture and society from which languages come. California schools would benefit its students by providing language learning within a cultural context.
Learning a world language also helps bridge the gap between people of different nationalities and can promote and repair relationships. Learning a language is not only necessary to communicate with its native speakers, but is also a way of breaking down barriers and differences between people as it brings commonality and connection to any interaction. This concept has been accepted worldwide. Language exchange programs such as France’s Parler en Paix initiative are centered on repairing relations between the French Jewish and Muslim communities affected by French laïcité (secularism). The organization's students learn both Arabic and Hebrew in an effort to achieve the public’s end goal of a unified country. Ultimately, "efforts like Parler en Paix emphasize a desire within the French public for tolerance and unification," (newsela) thereby making a profound impact on eliminating xenophobia and anti-semitism throughout France. By embracing the language, religion and culture of other races, we have the potential to unite diverse groups, even those with a history of religious and political conflict. And, with global warming trends, pandemics, and dwindling natural resources, our world is in a precarious position. It is up to our generation of students to unite as one global community to solve our world’s problems. Much like France, the state of California has a diverse racial and religious group of citizens. Second language teaching should be more integrated into our state’s education requirements in order to prepare for the future.
California lags in world language education, which in turn limits the opportunities available to its students and affects their competitive standing. European countries have been the forerunner in recognizing the importance of introducing comprehensive world language programs. Even US government officials recognize that world language learning is “essential for US economic and strategic interests” (Washington, newsela). Without world language education, how can we expect our students to take on global interests? Moreover, learning a world language reaps many intellectual benefits that are necessary for success. “By acquiring a foreign language, you will double the number of available jobs... and climb the career ladder much faster” (Jiidee, University of the Potomac). If California’s students are to intellectually “stay in the running” against other countries, language learning is a must. And, due to the fact that language requirements are determined at the district or state level, each state must be accountable for its own students’ education.
Some may argue that learning a second language isn't necessary for California students, most of whom stay within California or take jobs where a second language isn’t useful or required. The chances are that the majority of California’s students will pursue jobs that don’t require international travel or global relations. Arguably, if second language proficiency is required on the job, diplomats or global professionals may be hired when needed, or more simply, a translator could be used. Furthermore, why should students spend years of their academic life learning languages when they could be trained to code software programs that not only translate but encode and decode many other languages? Some think learning a second language isn’t necessary given that our country and state holds plenty of jobs for its students who need not look beyond our borders. Yet our world is becoming “smaller,” and as a result more diversified. Even with local jobs, we cannot close ourselves off from the world. Oftentimes, local state jobs rely on the shipment of goods and services from abroad. Local businesses will often look outside our state and country for foreign investors who can help their businesses grow. Even on a state level, it is necessary that we learn to communicate and build these relationships around the world. Using a translator to engage in conversation would be difficult, impersonal and awkward. Also, hiring global professionals and diplomats would be a time-consuming and costly process for the average American business. Although our society relies heavily on technology, one cannot replace personal relationships with computer interactions and code. In fact, in some countries Asian countries, such as Japan, face-to-face interactions are so deeply entrenched in their customs that business relationships are not made without them. Trust is not built through software programs but by directly engaging with someone through language, handshakes and face-to-face involvement.
The state of California must realize the benefits of introducing a comprehensive world language program to its students, whether by bringing together people of different nationalities or helping students learn a new culture. Or, if California is concerned with how its residents perform on the international scale, they must realize how simply pursuing a language program allows them to keep pace. Other countries are advancing their students in world language programs, providing them with a deeper cultural understanding of our world and its people. In order to raise a generation of global problem solvers, California mustn't be the missing piece in the puzzle. Preparing our students to become a stronger, more globally aware and communicative generation that will look beyond our borders to solve problems relies on our introducing a world language program to students.
Jiidee, Mark. “9 Benefits of Learning a Second Language." University of the Potomac, potomac.edu. Accessed 4 January 2022.
Santin, Caitlin. Personal Interview by Olivia Shekou. 7 January 2022.
Washington, McClatchy. “Chinese guest teachers help U.S students learn their language and culture.” Newsela, 11 September 2013. newsela.com. Accessed 5 January 2022.
“Why French Jews and Muslims are learning each other’s language.” Newsela, 25 March 2020. newsela.com. Accessed 5 January 2022.
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