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Teaching languages to kids is important

February 26, 2011
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

The Enterprise strongly supports the teaching of foreign languages, starting as young as possible.

Ideally, this would be done as part of a regular academic curriculum. Generally, schools don't start offering languages until middle school, but in places like Lake Placid, Keene, Newcomb, Beekmantown and Indian River, they begin in elementary school.

Saranac Lake school officials are considering French and Spanish for kindergarten through fifth grade, although they have some fairly serious budget and schedule crunches to deal with. Teachers' suggestion to break instruction up into existing classes is intriguing - math lessons with French numbers and social studies lessons on the Spanish-speaking world's geography and culture, for example - but it seems there still would have to be some dedicated language classes. Would something have to give to squeeze that into the school day?

We believe a workable arrangement is possible that makes languages a solid priority, on at least the same level of importance as art and music. But the speed at which the school district progresses with this initiative will probably correspond with how many people - especially parents - tell officials they want it.

Meanwhile, if you're a parent in Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake or somewhere else where the elementary school doesn't offer language instruction, you can still get it for your child - and/or yourself. There are professional language tutors for both children and adults living among us. Their fees are comparable to sports or music lessons, sometimes less, and their hours are often flexible. We won't name any tutors for fear of leaving some out, but we suggest to them that they might want to start advertising in the Enterprise to let people know about them. There's probably a demand out there.

Now that we've addressed the how of language instruction, here's why we think it's important.

First, the younger children are, the easier it is for them to learn languages; that's just how the human brain works. It's good to take advantage of that natural timing.

Second, knowing more than one language will help the next generation of adults compete better professionally and enjoy more culturally. The world is steadily shrinking as technology helps connect far-apart nations. With each generation, knowing other languages becomes more important, for both business and pleasure.

Third, learning another country's language lets one hear and read the voices of those people, which opens one's mind to the way those people think. The more isolated we are, the more we think that our ways are the only right ways of thinking or behaving. Understanding enhances peace and prosperity.

Americans have been less willing to learn multiple languages than people of most countries in the world, and up to now we've been more or less able to get away with that, perhaps due to a mix of our geographic isolation and world-dominant economy that made English the world's most desireable language. But the world is changing, and Americans have to step it up. Nations we called "Third World" not too long ago are coming on strong economically, and many jobs once held by Americans have been shipped overseas.

Our president and our governor have said education should be the springboard to our nation's resurgence. President Obama noted in his State of the Union speech how China and India emphasize math and science. Already, U.S. schools are giving these subjects more attention. Languages should get some, too.

Even now, one-language people are handicapped in many situations, whether it's a day trip to Quebec, a vacation to Central America or a job that takes us into a Latino neighborhood in our own country.

Those of us who never learned a second language, or learned too little too late, regret it.



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