Comments on “Learning a language to welcome the future”

Like many of you, I have read The World is Flat, and — while I agree with many of the points that Friedman makes in the text — I have been searching for a more nuanced argument, beyond reasons of pure economics, about how and why our children should become more technically proficient and multilingual, especially if that language is Chinese.

I was looking for a way to articulate points that the New London Group argues for in their seminal essay, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” as it relates to recognizing linguistic diversity, both within and across languages, and understanding technology and new literacies from a critical perspective. In other words, we might want to teach our children another language because it can make them a well-rounded person, one who is better able to communicate in a variety of contexts not just a money-maker. That is my approach to literacy as it relates to technology and, I feel, a perspective not shared amongst the dominant discourse of literacy learning in American schooling. Our lack of K-5 foreign language offerings is proof to that.

So, I was happy to see the argument that the The Star Tribune developed with the topic, especially since it was on the eve of 9/11. Here is their entire editorial:

Want to do your bit to shape the future? Walk over to your neighborhood preschool and sit the teachers down for a chat: Teaching the kids to sing and get along is great, but what they really need is a daily dose of Chinese. If your listeners blink in bafflement, just explain: Chinese is the language of tomorrow, and today’s tots can learn it in a twinkling.

Preschool is the sensible place to start since children’s brains can easily absorb languages (many at a time, in fact) before age 6.
But it makes little sense to have preschools do this if grade schools won’t continue, and there’s reason to worry they won’t. The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t require consistent foreign-language instruction starting early in grade school.

A survey from the Center for Applied Linguistics shows that fewer than 15 percent of elementary kids study a foreign language. The proportion rises to just over half among high-schoolers.

Beyond the educational system’s blindness to the science of language acquisition are a few other snarls: One is the fact that very few of the U.S. students working seriously to learn a foreign language are studying Chinese — let alone Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Farsi or any of the other “emerging” tongues.

And if demand for learning these languages were suddenly to rise, U.S. schools couldn’t come through — for teachers of languages are desperately scarce. Sorting out this situation will require acknowledging with sincerity the merits of multilingualism and a wholesale excavation and recasting of the country’s approach to introducing new learners to foreign speech.

The consequences of the country’s linguistic lassitude have already proven ominous: Because it lacks an adequate supply of proficient speakers, the U.S. government often displays clumsiness in diplomacy and cultural outreach, sends garbled messages to foreign media outlets, fumbles in gathering intelligence and warding off terrorism — and insults nations overseas by staffing our embassies with officials ill-equipped to communicate.

By the time today’s toddlers become globetrotters, monolingualism will compromise not only American pride, but American livelihoods. Before long, competency in Chinese could very well be the key to forging friendships and averting needless enmity. The ability to speak the world’s most common language will likely open doors and job opportunities. And though America’s linguistic layabouts seem not to know it, speaking as others speak has always been the key to opening minds.

Editorial: Learning a language to welcome the future

Now, why did this one really strike a chord with me? Well, today, our daughter started her first day in preschool — half the day in English, half the day in Chinese — as part of a partnership with MSU’s Education for Global Citizenship Schools. As parents, my wife and I wanted her to be a part of this so she could have the experience of learning a new culture and language. As the Star Tribune notes, this is about more than just money; instead we need to view learning a new language as part of the cultural experience of being 21st century citizens.

I know, I know. Even that argument can come back to economics. I am not here to rewrite the rules for what Jim Gee calls “fast capitalism” and to try to subvert the system. I am aware of it, and that, for now, is enough. Besides, I realize, much to my chagrin, that my daughter’s participation in this full program (with a waiting list) just adds to the list of data supporting these types of arguments.
But, just for a day, just for my daughter, I want to believe that this is, indeed, about more than money. I want to believe that it is about her learning another language and culture. I want to believe that she will be engaged as a global citizen because it it ethically responsible, not just fiscally prudent. Before we went into the school today, she told me that she was afraid she wouldn’t understand anything that her Chinese teacher told her. By the time she got home, she couldn’t stop talking about how much fun she had, even if she only knew how to say “Ni hao.” I believe that this is a start.

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