Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why do we drink water?

This morning I received an e-mail from a young student in Germany who would love to spend a few weeks with a family in Wisconsin. She will turn 15 years old this summer and is currently in the ninth grade. Her favorite subjects, she writes, are English, Spanish and Latin (from her perspective, that’s three foreign languages).

A couple of weeks ago I accompanied a few German students and two high school seniors from Wisconsin on their flight from Chicago to Frankfurt. The German kids, all of them 15 or 16 years old, had just spent a semester at Wisconsin high schools and were returning home. I noticed that one of them was speaking Spanish during her tearful good-byes to her Wisconsin host family, which included native Spanish speakers. I asked her about it later. “Yes,” she said. “At home we only spoke Spanish.” Really? A 15-year-old German had no difficulty participating fully in an English-language school while speaking Spanish at home. In addition, she takes French at her school in Germany. All of the other German students confirmed that they, too, had already started learning a third language. I felt sorry for the Wisconsin students, who were very worried about their beginning German and not at all sure how they would survive in school and in their host family homes. They were certainly expecting to be able to use English a lot during their three-month stay.

It’s true, isn't it, that our expectations of students in the U.S. are different. The Wisconsin students in my traveling group have lost out in their education because they have not been expected to stretch and learn other languages.

We know the numbers: About 53% of Wisconsin’s high school students are enrolled in a world language. We don’t know how many of them are enrolled for two, three or four years of it. Colleges in Wisconsin typically require two years of world language learning for admission or graduation. The College of Letters & Sciences at UW-Madison goes beyond that with a requirement of four years. But, getting back to the comparison with Germany, that’s for ONE world language, not three. And the learning sequences are shorter, resulting in lower overall proficiency levels.

We want our students to be globally competitive and globally competent. We talk about STEM literacy, reading scores, common core standards, and much more. And all of that is fine and necessary. But we do not talk enough about the need to learn other languages. It is not central to most education debates. Somehow we feel we can get away with that—that, because “the rest of the world learns English,” we do not have to stretch.

We should be well beyond the stage where we have to justify the need for our students to learn languages. Yet we are not. Whatever the barriers may be, we will pay a price for this neglect fairly soon.
So much of what is happening in our schools is good. We have wonderful teachers, and our students are as smart, creative, and inquisitive as any of their peers around the world. But if we do not raise expectations, if we do not ask them to learn to communicate their thoughts and ideas in multiple languages, we are automatically putting them a step behind their peers in other countries.

I just watched a human interest story that was part of coverage of the Olympic Games. It was about the Russian tradition in ice skating that requires skaters to go through training with the Bolshoi Ballet, an extremely strenuous exercise. The U.S. reporter asked an older Russian coach why they require that. The response came in utter disbelief: “I don’t know what to say. Why do we breathe air, why do we drink water?”

Why do we keep asking why our students need to learn world languages?


  1. Maybe, just maybe, when the First Globals achieve positions of political and economic power, we will come to our senses. My sons think much differently about language than most of my generation did. The eldest is married to a native Spanish speaker, the second has a degree in French, the third is living in Taiwan, determined to learn Mandarin, even while he is using French to communicate with young francophones he meets in Asia. These young people understand. They just don't have much clout yet. I have to believe it will come.

  2. Language learning is as natural as breathing air or drinking water. Our brains are designed to acquire language throughout our whole lives. We sell our USA kids short with low expectations for this and other intellectual capacities.

  3. Being fluent in multiple languages is not difficult if you start early. Our students are not exposed to second and third languages in primary school. Not only they miss out on being able to communicate in multiple languages, but they also miss out in understanding the culture, history and customs of other parts of the world.

  4. I could not agree more! We talk the talk on the importance of language learning and global competence, we can only hope that walking the walk will occur soon.


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