A recent article confirms a growing trend in American education: axing foreign languages to clear space in tight budgets or course calendars. This trend is particularly disturbing considering that learning a foreign language has been shown to aid in the mastery of other subjects.
For example: “the cognitive skill[s] that comes from mastering a complex, graphic, non-alphabetical writing system” can be extremely useful when applied to mathematics. Some even link “Chinese success in science, math and education to the pattern recognition and mental practices needed to learn the language at an early age in the first place”.
Yet Americans are shying away from other languages. From 1997 to 2008, the share of all U.S. elementary schools offering language classes fell from 31 percent to 25 percent, while middle schools dropped from 75 percent to 58 percent. In contrast, most European and Asian countries make second and third languages compulsory, beginning early in the early grades.
This is particularly interesting in light of our embarrassingly low scores on international assessments. If studying a foreign language builds cognitive ability, is it really that surprising to see US students lag behind their bi- and tri-lingual peers? Honestly, we’re not shocked.
California politicians recently attempted to water down (to the point of elimination) its high school arts and foreign language graduation requirement. Fortunately, critics slammed the bill for its potentially devastating impact on state education and the Governor responded with a veto.
International comparisons aside, learning a foreign language is an integral part of a broad liberal arts education. Let’s make this education available to all our students.