Renewed focus on teaching foreign languages could go a long way towards improving America’s educational system.
Should we be learning from China or learning Chinese?
Debate surrounds the model of education exemplified by China and Singapore: heavy emphasis on math, science and technology, reliance on memorization and constant testing. Some maintain this approach discourages creativity and critical thinking; others praise its rigor and perceived pragmatism.
There’s no doubt that by many measures it succeeds. The last Program for International Student Assessment report shows the US lagging far behind China and Singapore. The efficiency and tangible results of this pedagogy appeal to those who see the American educational system as flabby and lenient.
In a speech given in 2009 to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, “Remarks on a Complete and Competitive American Education,” Obama explicitly referenced Singapore, calling for a focus on tested accountability and practical skill acquisition. It’s an extension of the trend begun by No Child Left Behind, which promoted an empirical understanding of success.
While Obama’s Race to the Top shifts responsibility from the federal to the state level, the emphasis on testing remains. It’s an unsound tendency. Sensational stories emerge from China of students who buy 5,000 dollar cameras to fit on their pencils or receive an IV drip so that eating won’t interrupt their studying. While the American examples are less extreme, when test scores determine the future of a school, it’s no wonder that administration and teachers resort to dishonest or unbalanced means to achieve high scores.
Obama wants to restore America as a “world leader in science and technology.” Because of this, nearly every plan issued by states applying for Race to the Top grants stress the development of STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM reports themselves have the tagline “For America’s Future.” We’ve identified the instruments of progress. The latest educational policies are meant to release our nation’s inner tiger mom, data based and test-focused, aggressively invested in the “practical” fields of science and technology.
The pace of technological change demands improvement in these areas. But a solution to our communal failings will come from holistic analysis rather than a short-sighted realignment of the curriculum based on an imperfect model. After all "more science!" has been a kneejerk call to arms since the early fifties. Less at the forefront of discussion is our lack of foreign language education.
We have the dubious distinction of being the developed country with the least percentage of students studying a language other than their own. From 1997 to 2008, the percent of elementary schools offering any world language instruction fell from 31 percent to 25 percent, while the percent of middle schools offering languages fell from 75% to 58%. In a Center for Applied Linguistics survey including teachers, principals and administration, about one-third of respondents stated that No Child Left Behind had negatively affected language instruction. NCLB cut back on areas outside of the basics – mathematics and reading comprehension. The prevailing atmosphere of austerity inevitably means stripping away programs that aren’t seen as directly productive. When proficiency in languages won’t get funding, it makes sense to drastically de-prioritize it.
Foreign language instruction may also be tainted by connotations of the two traditionally offered options, neither of which are “critical” languages. French’s one-time role as the dominant international language reminds us that English’s privilege is equally insecure. Spanish, more damningly, evokes fears of an America overtaken by immigrants. In 2008, Obama acknowledged the importance of immigrants learning English but also stressed that we should work towards raising children who spoke a language other than English. Obama’s comments prompted some jingoist zealots to call him a “sick” and “scary” man.
This vitriolic response suggests monolingualism has become an expression of patriotism, of devotion to the American worldview. Of course, there is truth in the idea that learning another language casts doubt upon the validity of an absolute perspective. An increase in language education probably won’t result in a communistic revolution in the heartland, but studies have shown that language education increases openness to other cultures, especially in the immersion programs which are most viable in the early school years.
Furthermore, language is measurably needed, in intelligence, diplomacy, and business.. Politicians occasionally recognize this necessity. A revitalization of language learning in the form of Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 did emerge from the foreign-relations anxiety of the Cold War, but most funding was for higher education: targeting and benefitting only those who had already succeeded in early education rather than applying the benefits of language instruction universally.
A National Security Language Initiative established in 2006 allocated funds from the Defense budget towards language instruction in critical languages. But the program did not specifically propose any curricular changes in elementary education, with most of the money going towards grants for high school and undergraduate students. Six years later, in a report issued by the Council on Foreign Relations, lack of critical languages is still one of the country's largest security risks.
Despite the obvious benefits to the government, overly politicizing language instruction puts its funding at the mercy of the tide of political fears and priorities. The idea of “critical languages” is flawed, reliant on an arrogant certainty in our accuracy in predicting future political relations. We ought to take the obsolescence of French as a warning. Earlier critical language programs focused intensely on Japanese and Russian, while newly critical languages include Korean and Punjabi.
It’s not just about international relations. Studying language is vital to all. To learn another language, “critical” or not, prepares the mind to better absorb knowledge. A recent editorial in the New York Times discussed the benefits of language education. Perceiving an environment simultaneously through two systems encourages flexible thought and quicker adaptation to new information. Despite arguments that learning two languages at once is confusing, children in immersion programs actually perform better on those omnipresent standardized tests.
“Foreign” aside, studying language involves deciphering and reconciling different, complex systems for organizing the world. While linguistic study is arduous and technical later in life, learning language is natural for young children - starting young is key.
The skills acquired are particularly important in navigating the world of the Internet. Children who speak two languages are more adept at filtering out unnecessary information. The Internet immerses us in a disorganized, paratactic stream of facts and news. The ability to find meaningful signals and patterns in the radio noise is essential.
Programming itself is language-learning: translating scraps of seemingly meaningless numbers into programs that let us compare hotel prices, construct 3D images of famous statues and send cat videos to our European cousins. Languages are codes, codes are language. With recent fear-mongering about cyber-attacks, we ought to have as many capable code-breakers as we can.
Foreign language instruction, rather than distracting from STEM programs, will reinforce and enhance them. We must equip our students to be global citizens and active learners. If nothing else, reprioritizing language education would be a symbolic rebuttal of American exceptionalism, a chance to crack open the provincial patriotism that is frighteningly widespread and move towards an atmosphere of genuine cross-cultural exchange.
Frederica Hill is a rising senior at Kenyon College.