Global is everywhere today. You can hardly turn on the news or read an op-ed without hearing how our world is growing more crowded and interconnected. Yet I was dismayed to read a troubling piece in Sunday's New York Times about foreign language suffering cuts yet again in elementary schools around the country this fall. In this day and age, American students need second language skills to keep pace with globalization and the competition rising from the super economies of China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Russia.
Take, for example, the streams of recent American college graduates who could not land a job in the U.S. and so, in order to escape hard times at home, headed to China to find work. Graduates with some Mandarin skills will fare better than those without; most likely all will learn while they are there. If and when these students return to the U.S., future employers will appreciate their ability to work cross-culturally, to understand aspects of Chinese business and language, and will -- if history is any indicator -- reward them with faster promotions and greater responsibility. Companies understand the value of global education.
In the global financial crisis, Americans learned that -- for the first time -- the so-called developing world surged past the developed world in its share of global productivity; Americans are learning that we can no longer afford to ignore China, Russia, India or Brazil. When today's kids grow up, they are as likely to be competing for jobs in and with people from Beijing or Brasilia or Bangalore as from Boston or Baton Rouge. In our ever-shrinking world, global experience will continue to move from "nice" to "must-have" for career success.
At stake is nothing less than our ability to compete successfully in the raw global arena, and one of the deciding factors will be American professionals' ability to speak strategic foreign languages.
However, because studies show that language learning comes more easily to those whose brains are still in the development phase -- up until roughly 12 or 13 years of age -- when we cut language programs from elementary schools, we are inhibiting bilingualism in future adults. We comfort ourselves with the unrealistic expectation that students will learn in high school or college. But that is unlikely to happen due to the increased difficulty in language learning as we get older. Arguably, bold and innovative new methods of teaching foreign language are needed now more than ever - and instituted in schools as early as kindergarten.
Moreover, cultural knowledge and understanding (gestures, choice of vocabulary) need to be married to actual language acquisition in a systematic way. Having native speakers with different world views as teachers allows children to acquire their language skills accompanied by enhanced levels of cultural, political and historical context. School districts need help in rising to this new challenge.
Yet despite the need, our foreign language skills have decreased precipitously. Perhaps this is because the time commitments required to achieve and retain a high level of skill, weighed against expected use and the widespread perception that foreign language skills are not really necessary -- do not favor language learning in school. Until this situation changes, it will be very difficult to radically alter our foreign language education system.
The United States must act boldly, and all sectors of society must participate lest we lose our competitive edge in the international marketplace. While multi-million dollar government grants continue to be issued to school districts interested in pursuing language curriculum, the current economic crisis does not bode well for growing these programs nor enabling schools to stretch beyond their basic needs. Businesses must continue to embrace international operations through expansion and operations abroad, but simultaneously through language and cultural acquisition. Universities and colleges must emphasize internationalism, including playing a leadership role in achieving language proficiency - which begins before students arrive on campus.
The stakes for our children are high, and rising. Americans must fight for the need to keep foreign language in the budget as a critical component to our children's success. Knowledge of and appreciation for another language and culture will help our children grow up ready for a complex and multi-cultural global economy. If we are to continue to prosper as a country, our children must become global citizens: open-minded, bilingual kids ready to see global interconnectedness as both opportunity and welcome challenge. Learning a second language is an integral part of this cross-cultural sophistication.
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