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Prioritize multi-lingualism in childhood education

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | NOVEMBER 30, 2011 7:20 AM

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Learning languages early in childhood is vital to the growth of our students. School districts should start as early as elementary school to implement programs in order to provide students with the tools they need to excel in a global economy.

While speaking at various town-hall meetings and public forums in the past weeks, Gov. Branstad communicated the key points of his education blueprint. Branstad said that if implemented, the blueprint would allow the state's students to be more competitive in the global and national arenas, while also benefiting schools and teachers in the local communities.

But one aspect that is lacking in the plan is an increased emphasis on the teaching of foreign languages in secondary and elementary schools.

The governor himself said dual competency was a "great suggestion,"saying, "[The United States hasn't] done a very good job of encouraging students to be competent in more than one language."

Though in a town-hall meeting on Nov. 15, Branstad clarified his statement, saying linguistic dual competency should be merely encouraged but not mandatory in Iowa schools.

The importance of multilingual students is somewhat overlooked by the current administration's plan. Because the plan is money-driven, it is difficult to have an honest discussion on important curriculum without knowing where the money is coming from.

This view is echoed by Leslie Schrier, a UI associate professor of education who specializes in Foreign Language/ESL development. She said learning a language is more than just experiencing a culture, it is developing a skill that can be used in everyday life and can be used to better understand our neighbors and better help Iowa's students learn.

Schrier believes that language development should be looked at similar to driving an other day-to-day actions and should be emphasized early.

"The sooner you start younger people, the more chance they have at being competent in those skills," Schrier said. "If you recognize a person's first language and work the language into the community, then the child will have a better chance to thrive."

Science backs up Schrier's idea. A study recently published in the Journal of Phonetics found that the ability to learn a foreign language starts slipping as early as 12 months old.

As a first-generation American, Schrier speaks from experience when she explored the way non-native speaking people, called "heritage language" speakers, integrate into a community.

"The recognition of other people's cultures doesn't seem to resonate in the classroom," she said. "In hard economic times, people begin to circle the wagons, leaving other programs by the wayside."

But these programs should not be cut — they should be viewed differently. Integration of a foreign culture into Iowan communities is more than necessary. Understanding a culture will provide for faster integration, and the only way to understand people is to communicate with them.

But in the end it comes down to the money. "It's very hard to justify the paying of a foreign-language teacher over the paying of a reading teacher," Schrier said.

The money will come as the value of bilingualism continues to grow. According to a 2009 poll, 31 percent of executives are bilingual, an additional 20 percent are trilingual, 9 percent speak four languages, and 4 percent speak more than four languages.

Linda Fandel, the governor's special assistant for education, said that although the governor is not mandating foreign-language programs in schools, he is strongly encouraging them.

"Foreign-language programs provide a lot of value," she said. "They open up doors in life, from learning about other cultures to making job possibilities realities."

Fandel accompanied a U.S. delegation to Singapore in October to observe and further understand how to create a better education system in Iowa. She said students in Singapore learn languages in their mother tongue, but also learn English as a common language very early in their educational experience.

"It's a flat world," she said, "Learning any second language is beneficial because of the increasing global economy, from communicating in job at a local business to a career after college."

Implementation of these programs is something to explore, she said, but the governor does not want to require programs right now.

Explore if you will, but we can't throw out foreign-language programs as if they are superfluous to our economic and cultural pursuits. They are at the core of our everyday life and affect our day-to-day actions in many ways.

While other countries, and even other states, are increasing efforts to encourage multilingualism, the United States and Iowa have remained largely stagnant. As a result, both the country and the state are taking steps backward in worldwide and national rankings. In order to stay ahead of the pack — or, as it may be the case, make up much-needed ground — foreign language must be highly prioritized early in our school systems.


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